WASHINGTON—President Bush on Sunday declared that America is winning the war in Iraq, but warned that it's premature to withdraw U.S. troops.
Speaking from the Oval Office—where he launched the war nearly three years ago—Bush took on critics of the war who argue for a U.S. pullout.
"Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts," the president said. "For every scene of destruction in Iraq, there are more scenes of rebuilding and hope. For every life lost, there are countless more lives reclaimed. And for every terrorist working to stop freedom in Iraq, there are many more Iraqis and Americans working to defeat them."
Looking straight into the camera and pointing a finger forward, Bush declared: "Not only can we win the war in Iraq—we are winning the war in Iraq."
Bush offered no new initiatives or programs in his 16-minute speech that the White House had billed as a major address and for which it had requested network television time.
Instead, Bush gave a summation of the themes he covered in four speeches he gave leading up to last Thursday's elections in Iraq.
As in those speeches, Bush mixed candor—including rare admissions of mistakes by this president—with his usually upbeat assessment of the military battle and political transition in Iraq. The unusual flurry of presidential speeches are part of a campaign to reverse sagging American support for the war and to quiet congressional war critics from both parties who seemed to have found their voice after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Vietnam veteran, called for pulling out of Iraq.
They are also the latest attempt to boost Bush's approval rating, which has suffered in large part because of public disapproval over his handling of the Iraq war.
Most Americans—58 percent in the latest Gallup Poll—don't think he has a plan for achieving victory in Iraq.
Democrats were unmoved by the speech.
"While I appreciate the president's increased candor, too much of the substance remains the same and the American people have still not heard what benchmarks we must meet along the way to know that progress is being made and that our brave troops can begin to come home," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Bush acknowledged that the intelligence the administration used to justify invading Iraq was wrong; that rebuilding efforts in Iraq has proceeded in "fits and starts," and that at least 30,000 Iraqis have been killed since the war began.
But Bush maintained that "it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
"He was given an ultimatum—and he made his choice for war," he said. "And the result of that war was to rid the world of a murderous dictator who menaced his people, invaded his neighbors, and declared America to be his enemy."
Bush said he recognized the war is controversial but added, "I have never been more certain that America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens, and will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."
He rejected calls from lawmakers, from both parties, for a pullout from Iraq, saying that would cripple the country's move toward democracy, signal a victory for terrorists, and embolden them to carry out acts against the United States and its allies.
"We would abandon our Iraqi friends—and signal to the world that America cannot be trusted to keep its word," Bush said. "We would hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us—and the global terrorist movement would be emboldened and more dangerous than ever before."
Bush offered no timetable to bring U.S. troops home other than his repeated vow that they will begin to return as more and more American-trained Iraqi security forces are able to defend their country.
"As these achievements come, it will require fewer American troops to accomplish our mission," he said. "I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see on the ground and the advice of our military leaders—not based on artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."
White House and Pentagon officials have signaled that they expect to bring some U.S. troops home as Iraqi security forces become more able to defend their country. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq grew from 138,000 to 160,000 in an effort to bolster security for the Dec. 15 elections. The White House hopes to return troop levels to 138,000 relatively quickly.
But bringing 22,000 soldiers home won't be enough to satisfy some congressional lawmakers who are calling for a more robust and quicker withdrawal of American forces.
Bush warned that it's too soon for such talk. While praising last Thursday's election he added that it wouldn't provide a quick fix for the war-torn country.
"This election will not mean the end of violence," he said. "But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote—6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world—means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror."
Administration officials showed up in Iraq and fanned out to the Sunday television talk shows ahead of Bush's speech to affirm that the president has a formula for success in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney, who secretly traveled to Iraq's Al Asad Air Base, told troops there that "Iraq's looking good."
"I think we've turned the corner, if you will," Cheney said during a question-and-answer session with about 30 military members. "I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year ཁ was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq. We're getting the job done. It's hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don't pay that much attention to the news."
Members of Congress continued to foresee difficulties ahead for the United States in Iraq.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that while the United States should not withdraw quickly from Iraq, it will be difficult to sustain a long-term commitment in the country.
"The question is whether the United States can reduce the casualties because that's what Americans care about," he said. "And that is all dictated by the ability of the Iraqi military and police to take over the responsibilities which we are starting to do slowly. And there are problems. There are militias that are controlling some parts of the Iraqi military. There is still corruption."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who just returned from a trip to Iraq, applauded last week's elections but said the United States and the Iraqis still face obstacles.
"The Ministry of the Interior, the police force, is seen as an agent for a political party, not protecting the people," he said. "The militias, armed camps, representing political parties, are stronger than the army."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who also just returned from Iraq, said the next six months would prove crucial.
He said Bush needs to make sure that top Iraqi ministries are represented by non-sectarian leaders and that the country's Sunni minority gets a significant voice in the government.
"If that doesn't happen all the king's horses and all the king's men six months from now are not going to hold this country together," he said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat in the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Bush only has a four-month window to put Iraq on the right track.
"We've got to tell them they need to come together politically or we're going to have to reconsider our presence in Iraq," he said. "That's the club, that's the leverage, which we must exercise."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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