President Bush argues the case for staying in Iraq

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The Independent US

Democrats and Republicans are applauding President George W. Bush for acknowledging mistakes in Iraq and taking responsibility, but critics say he still has not given Americans a realistic plan that will lead to the withdrawal of US forces.

"I know that some of my decisions have led to terrible loss - and not one of those decisions has been taken lightly," Bush declared in a televised speech to the nation Sunday night, his first from the Oval Office since announcing the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

He held out the promise that when the Iraqi military gains strength and self-government moves forward, "it should require fewer American troops to accomplish our mission. I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see."

The language was not specific enough for Bush's critics.

"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 when the troops "can begin to come home," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

His House counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said: "Tonight the president acknowledged more of the mistakes he has made in Iraq, but he still does not get it. Iraq did not present an imminent threat to the security of the United States before he began his war of choice."

Bush said that despite setbacks, "Not only can we win the war in Iraq - we are winning the war in Iraq."

There is a difference, he said, between "honest critics who recognize what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."

That drew a rebuttal from Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "It's wrong for him to silence his critics by calling them defeatists," said Kennedy. "Every American - including those that thought this war should never have been fought - understands that we have no choice for own security but to win in Iraq."

Bush should acknowledge, "as his own generals do, that the Iraq war has emboldened the terrorists and increased their ranks," Kennedy said.

Critics also said that a change in direction is essential.

Iraqis must be told the United States will reconsider its presence unless the new constitution is revised to give the minority Sunni Arab community a stake in running the country, said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

"They've got to share power, they've got to share oil resources," said Levin, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. There can be a significant withdrawal of US troops only if there are enough capably trained Iraqi soldiers by the end of 2006, he said.

On NBC television's "Meet the Press" earlier Sunday, Levin said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has "ducked the question" of whether the United States would tell the Iraqis they need to change their new constitution.

"The amendment process is there and it ought to be used," said Rice, also appearing on NBC.

In his speech, Bush said it is important "for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out ... before our work is done. We would abandon our Iraqi friends and signal to the world that America cannot be trusted to keep its word."

"The president said we must not pull out of Iraq 'before our work is done,"' said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. "He needs to understand that our brave servicemen and women won a resounding victory in the initial military operation, and their task is now largely over."

Bush said some look at Iraq and conclude that "the war is lost," but "not even the terrorists believe it. We know from their own communications that they feel a tightening noose - and fear the rise of a democratic Iraq."

Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, Armed Services Committee chairman, said Bush's speech "was a high-water mark in his acknowledgment that mistakes have been made and that he has to accept his share of the blame.

"But he remains resolute, as he should, in continuing our help to the Iraqi people so that they can achieve a self-sufficient government and become a truly sovereign nation," Warner added.

Bush's Oval Office address followed a string of weekend attacks by insurgents in Iraq that pierced three days of relative calm. It also topped off an 18-day span in which Bush made five speeches conceding setbacks amid progress in Iraq.

"We have six more months to get this right," Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, said on MSNBC, but added that "the president has to move."

To abandon Iraq now would be a "serious, serious mistake," said Biden. "If we, in fact, lose in Iraq - that is, if a Shia-style, Iranian-style government is set up - it will be terrible for us for a long time."

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