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Bush defends Iraq policy, downplays expectations of dramatic results from voting there

PHILADELPHIA—President Bush acknowledged Monday that perhaps 30,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2003, an admission he gave in answer to a rare unscripted question from the audience after he spoke in defense of his Iraq policy.

Speaking to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Bush downplayed expectations for this week's election of a new Iraqi government. He said he doesn't expect the selection of a 275-member parliament to end the violence that's claimed more than 2,100 American lives.

When pressed by a questioner for the Iraqi death toll—a topic that U.S. officials try to avoid—Bush put the figure at "30,000, more or less." Presidential aides said the number was based on independent estimates and wasn't an official count.

The Iraq Body Count, a U.S.-British group, relies on press accounts for its estimate of 27,383 to 30,892 civilian deaths.

Bush came to the birthplace of American democracy to deliver a progress report on the administration's efforts to transform Iraq from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Monday's speech included a new twist: For the first time in months, Bush took questions from an audience that wasn't stacked with supporters. Although the crowd in Philadelphia's Park Hyatt Hotel seemed generally supportive, there were some dissenters among the several hundred luncheon guests.

Faeze Woodville, an Iranian-American from the Philadelphia suburbs, won scattered applause when she asked Bush why he and other administration officials "keep linking 9-11 to the invasion of Iraq."

Bush has acknowledged that there's no direct link between Iraq and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but he and other top officials often spoke about 9-11 in presenting the case for war with Iraq.

Bush told Woodville that the 2001 attacks changed his approach to foreign policy.

"It said that oceans no longer protect us, that we can't take threats for granted; that if we see a threat, we've got to deal with it," he said. "I made a tough decision. And knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again."

The applause for Bush's response was far louder than the applause for Woodville's question, but she felt the answer fell short.

"He didn't answer it. I didn't expect that he would," she said later.

In his speech, the president accused Iran and Syria of trying to thwart the transition.

Bush said Iran is "is actively working to undermine a free Iraq" by meddling in Iraqi affairs. Many of Iraq's leading Shiite Muslims, the dominant sect in both countries, have close ties to Iran.

"Iran doesn't want democracy in Iraq to succeed because a free Iraq threatens the legitimacy of Iran's oppressive theocracy," he said. "Iraq's neighbor to the west, Syria, is permitting terrorists to use that territory to cross into Iraq."

Bush's generally upbeat assessment of Iraqi politics was the third in a series of speeches intended to shore up support for the war. His previous remarks dealt with security issues and Iraq's economic reconstruction. He will deliver a fourth and final pre-Iraq election address on Wednesday.

Bush listed four big challenges for Iraq after the election: quelling the insurgency, forming a government acceptable to all of Iraq's ethnic groups, establishing the rule of law and resisting meddling by its neighbors.

He cited the recent discovery of what appear to be government-sponsored torture chambers as an example of the rifts in Iraqi society. The interrogation centers, run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry with help from Shiite militias, seemed to target Sunni Arabs.

"Iraqis still have to overcome longstanding ethnic and religious tensions, and the legacy of three decades of dictatorship," Bush said. "I know some fear the possibility that Iraq could break apart and fall into a civil war. I don't believe these fears are justified."

Bush also took issue with critics who say that Iraq's history and ethnic makeup make it an unlikely candidate for a swift transition to democracy.

"It is hard work. There's a lot of resentment and anger and bitterness. But I believe it's going to happen. And the only way it won't happen is if we leave, if we lose our nerve, if we allow the terrorists to achieve their objective," he said.

He accused his critics of assuming that a withdrawal from Iraq would pacify the Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists who have infiltrated the country.

"That's not reality," Bush said. "And my job as the president is to see the world the way it is, not the way we hope it is."

In related developments, a consortium of Western news organizations, including ABC and Time magazine, found in a new poll of 1,711 Iraqis that three-quarters of Iraqis voice confidence in the elections and that 70 percent—including most people in Shiite and Sunni areas—want Iraq to remain a unified country.

In addition, 69 percent expect things to improve over the next year—though Iraqis in Sunni-dominated provinces are far less optimistic.

But two-thirds of Iraqis said they oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition troops—14 percentage points higher than in February 2004—and nearly 60 percent disapprove of how the United States has acted in Iraq. Nearly half want U.S. forces to leave soon. The poll was taken between Oct. 8 and Nov. 22 and had an error margin of 2.5 percentage points.

Throughout Iraq on Monday, soldiers assigned to protect polling centers on Thursday cast ballots.

About 3,000 mostly Shiite soldiers in the insurgent-laden city of Ramadi made their way to a makeshift polling center on their base. They shouted popular Shiite chants and said they supported the United Iraqi Alliance, the top Shiite slate. One had a campaign sign supporting the slate pinned to his uniform. Another taped a sign to his weapon.

U.S. officials say they hope that Sunnis in cities like Ramadi will vote Thursday. Sunnis boycotted the January election, which elected an interim parliament. But throughout Ramadi, al-Qaeda has posted signs threatening to kill anyone who votes Thursday, and residents have said they don't feel safe. On Monday, the downtown looked abandoned. Most buildings were crumbling or filled with large bullet holes.

An Iraqi commander said that although insurgents control about 25 percent of Ramadi, the city will be safe enough for voters to come to the polls.

"They want to vote," said Lt. Col. Jabar al-Meyahi, 41, of Baghdad. "They are afraid to go. But God willing, we will make them feel safe."

Ramadi's tribal leaders met Monday with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Minister of Defense Sadoun al-Dulaimi. The tribal leaders said they wanted to form a military force composed of their residents, not Shiites.

Al-Dulaimi, a Sunni and Ramadi native, admonished them, saying they were welcoming insurgents from Syria into their homes. If they want to stop the violence, they should close their doors to insurgents and join the existing army, not form a new one, he said.

"How will you help us to distinguish and separate the good from the evil so your province will not suffer?" al-Dulaimi asked them.

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(Hutcheson reported from Philadelphia, Youssef from Baghdad)

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

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