Bush says US troops will 'finish work of fallen' in Iraq

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George Bush said last night he is ready to put more American troops on the front lines and use decisive force if necessary to restore order. He said he was confident the nation would stand with him despite "gut-wrenching" televised images of fallen Americans.

George Bush said last night he is ready to put more American troops on the front lines and use decisive force if necessary to restore order. He said he was confident the nation would stand with him despite "gut-wrenching" televised images of fallen Americans.

At a combination speech and news conference at the White House, the President rejected suggestions that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam — a quagmire without an easy exit.

"I think that analogy is false," he said. "I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy."

He also said he was "proud" of the coalition of countries that had send troops to Iraq and suggested he would seek for a new UN Security Council resolution "that will help other nations to decide to participate" in Iraq's reconconstruction. He did not elaborate.

The president said that within the last week he had spoken to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, both of whom have sent troops to Iraq, saying he was "heartened" by their resolve.

"Tony Blair is the same way," Bush said. "He understands, like I understand, that we cannot yield at this point in time, that we must remain steadfast and strong."

Standing before cameras for an hour — giving a 17-minute speech followed by reporters' questions — he offered no apology for the government's failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 or find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In response to questions, he also could not cite any mistakes or failures of his as president.

One year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bush said a recent spike in violence is neither a civil war nor a popular uprising. "The violence we've seen is a power grab by ... extreme and ruthless elements" from inside Iraq and from outside.

While the troops will remain, Bush also said the United States would stick to a June 30 deadline for handing over political power to Iraqis. He said a UN envoy would help decide which Iraqis would be placed in charge.

With casualties climbing and doubts rising, Bush said America's yearlong involvement in Iraq "seems like a long time to the loved ones whose troops have been overseas. But when you think about where the country has come from, it's a relatively short period of time."

Bush said Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, indicated he need more troops in Iraq. Abizaid told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld he needs at least 10,000 more troops than he had previously envisioned.

"If that's what he wants, that's what he gets," Bush said. "And we'll need to be there for a while."

The president addressed matters of war and peace in the course of his hour at the podium, but election-year politics shadowed the proceedings.

Asked whether he believes he has acted correctly even if it costs him his job, he replied quickly, "I don't intend to lose my job. Because I'm going to tell the American people I have a plan to win the war on terror."

"Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens," Bush said. "I don't. It's a tough time for the American people to see that. It's gut-wrenching."

Iraq figures in Bush's decline in US public opinion polls in two areas that are critical for his re-election campaign. Approval of his handling of Iraq has declined to the mid-40 percent level, and approval for his handling of terrorism has dipped into the mid-50s. Growing numbers of people say the military action in Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism.

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said Bush failed to explain how he would stabilize Iraq.

"We need to set a new course in Iraq," Kerry said in a statement. "We need to internationalize the effort and put an end to the American occupation. We need to open up the reconstruction of Iraq to other countries. We need a real transfer of political power to the UN"

While Bush opened with remarks about Iraq, the questions were broader — focusing as well on the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Had I had any inkling whatsoever that people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to protect the country. Just like we're working to prevent further attacks," he said.

Asked whether he felt any responsibility for the attack, Bush said he grieved for the families of the victims and said in retrospect he wished, for example, the Homeland Security Department had been in place. Bush initially opposed creation of the agency but changed his mind under prodding from lawmakers.

The president also said a highly publicized intelligence briefing he received on Aug. 6, 2001, contained "nothing new" in terms of disclosing that Osama bin Laden hoped to attack the United States. He was heartened, he said, by the disclosure that the FBI was conducting numerous investigations.

But that claim was undercut earlier in the day at a televised hearing by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks. Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard testified he didn't know where the information about the FBI investigations came from, and one commission member, Slade Gorton, suggested many of the investigations related to fund raising, not the threat of attacks.

Bush said he would investigate the matter.

Bush strode into the East Room of the White House midway through the deadliest month for Americans since Baghdad fell last spring.

At least 83 US forces have been killed and more than 560 wounded this month, according to the US military, as American troops fight on three fronts: against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Shiite militiamen in the south and gunmen in Baghdad and on its outskirts. At least 678 US troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

Additionally, four American employees of a private security company working in Iraq were killed and their bodies mutilated two weeks ago, and Thomas Hamill, an employee of another firm, was seized as a hostage last week.

Bush said the United States was demanding the arrest or capture of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose illegal militias have fought US forces in southern Iraq. He said he had instructed the military to use decisive force if necessary to crush the insurgency.

He compared insurgents taking hostages in Iraq to radical Islamic fanatics around the world, saying they are "serving the same ideology of murder" of those who blow up trains in Madrid, Spain, bomb buses in Israel — or inflicted the worst attack in American history.

"None of these acts is the work of a religion," Bush said. "All are the work of a fanatical political ideology.

"The legacy that our troops are going to leave behind is a legacy of lasting importance, as far as I'm concerned. It's a legacy that really is based upon our deep belief that people want to be free and that free societies are peaceful societies."

"Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don't believe Iraq can be free; that if you're Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can't be self-governing or free. I'd strongly disagree with that," the president said.

It was Bush's first prime-time news conference since March 6, 2003, just days before the opening of the war to depose Saddam. Bush's only other evening news conference was on Oct. 11, 2001, a month after the terror attacks.