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Bush points to elections as progress in Iraq

WASHINGTON—President Bush on Sunday hailed last week's elections in Iraq as a new chapter in that country's history but warned against a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The president, in remarks released before his prime-time Oval Office speech, took on critics of the war who argue for a U.S. pullout and maintain that the billions of dollars spent on the war and the more than 2,100 American lives lost will bring nothing in return.

"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."

Still, 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 160,000in an effort to bolster security for the Dec. 15 elections. The White House hopes to return troop levels back down to 138,000 relatively quickly.

But bringing 22,000 soldiers home won't be enough to satisfy some congressional lawmakers, such as Rep. John Murtha, a pro-military Pennsylvania Democrat, 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 won'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."

The president's address followed a string of four speeches before the Iraqi elections last Thursday. In the speeches, Bush mixed candor with his usually upbeat assessment of the military battle and political transition in Iraq.

The president, who rarely acknowledges mistakes, admitted that the intelligence used to justify going to war was wrong, and that efforts to rebuild Iraq have proceed in "fits and starts" and still face monumental problems. He cited estimates that at least 30,000 Iraqis have been killed since the invasion began in 2003.

In citing the miscues, Bush has also tried to make the argument for the United States to press on in Iraq. The speeches represent the White House's latest effort to try to bulk up sagging American support for the war and to quiet congressional war critics from both parties who seemed to have found their voice after Murtha, 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.

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."

Sunday's speech came as 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 kings horses and all the kings 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."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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