WASHINGTON—President Bush refused Tuesday to say when he thinks U.S. troops will be able to begin leaving Iraq, reaffirming instead his commitment to stay the course until a democratic Iraqi government can run the country.
Bush alternated between showing resolve and annoyance as he was peppered with questions during a rare and hastily called news conference. Several independent analysts described the move as a desperate attempt by a White House that's trying to stem serious erosion in public support for its handling of Iraq.
The Bush administration "had a terrible week in Iraq, and they know it," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Americans are starting to see Vietnam without the jungle. This (news conference) was something they had to do to reverse the public view of our mission in Iraq."
The news conference came after the most devastating spate of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq since Bush declared an end to U.S. combat operations six months ago. At least 35 people, including one U.S. soldier, were killed and 230 were wounded Monday when car bombs exploded at the Red Cross headquarters and three Iraqi police stations.
Since March, 355 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, including 229 in hostile fire, according to the Department of Defense. Since Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1, 217 U.S. soldiers have been killed, including 115 in hostile fire.
The president repeated his assertion that the attacks show that U.S. and coalition forces are making progress in Iraq that the attackers are desperate to stop.
"That's what terrorists do: They commit suicide acts against innocent people and then expect people to say, `Well, gosh, we better not try to fight anymore,' " Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "I say they are not going to intimidate America. And they are not going to intimidate the brave Iraqis who are actively participating in securing the freedom of their country."
Bush said the United States will not be deterred from completing its mission of ridding Iraq of the influence of ousted President Saddam Hussein, rebuilding the war-torn country and handing it over to an elected Iraqi government.
But he wouldn't say how long it would be before American soldiers could start coming home. Bush brushed aside a question on whether he could promise that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would be reduced within a year.
"The . . . question is a trick question, so I won't answer it," Bush said.
He bristled at questions about whether he acted prematurely when he landed in a fighter jet on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 and declared the military mission in Iraq a success, and whether he has fully told the American people the difficulty of securing a postwar Iraq.
"Yes, I can't put it any more plainly, Iraq is a dangerous place. That's leveling," Bush said. "What I was saying is there's more than just terrorist attacks that are taking place in Iraq. There's schools opening, there are hospitals opening."
Bush declared that he is so pleased with progress in Iraq that he intends to make his war record a cornerstone of his re-election campaign.
"I'll say that the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership, and America is more secure," he said.
That could be a dicey strategy, as polls reveal that more Americans are starting to doubt the positive assessment the White House has of its postwar effort. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 50 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of postwar Iraq, while 47 percent approved.
Public support for the war itself has also dropped. In April, 71 percent supported the war, and 26 percent opposed it. This week, support for the war slipped to 54 percent, while opposition grew to 43 percent.
Independent analysts said fear of further slippage in polls and the almost daily deaths from Iraq forced the White House to call Tuesday's news conference, an event that Bush does not particularly enjoy. The media were notified that Bush would meet with them only about 90 minutes before he appeared.
Tuesday's session was Bush's 10th solo news conference since becoming president. Bill Clinton had held 34 such news conferences at this point of his first term.
Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the White House is starting to view Iraq through the prism of next year's elections and is getting nervous.
"It's electoral conflict management," Kipper said. "They're sticking to their guns on the (Iraq) policy: `We're right, you're wrong, the media's wrong.' But the number of people getting killed in Iraq tells a different story."
The USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll survey cited below was based on a telephone survey of 1,006 adults from Oct. 24-26, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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