PHILADELPHIA -- In a rare, unscripted moment, President Bush on Monday estimated 30,000 Iraqis have died in the war, the first time he has publicly acknowledged the high price Iraqis have paid in the push for democracy.
In the midst of a campaign to win support for the unpopular war, Bush unexpectedly invited questions from the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia after a speech asserting that Iraq was making progress despite violence, flawed elections and other setbacks.
He immediately was challenged about the number of Iraqis who have lost their lives since the beginning of the war.
"I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," Bush said. "We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."
The U.S. military does not release its tally of Iraqi dead, but there is some consensus from outside experts that roughly 30,000 is a credible number. White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush was not giving an official figure but simply repeating public estimates.
Another questioner challenged the administration's linkage of the Iraq war to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush said Saddam Hussein was a threat and was widely believed to have weapons of mass destruction -- a belief that later proved false.
"I made a tough decision. And knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again," Bush said. "Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country."
Monday's speech represented a departure from Bush's standard format where he speaks before friendly audiences -- often cheering members of the military -- and does not open himself to questions. He refused to take audience questions after an Iraq speech before the Council on Foreign Relations last week even though the group has a tradition of such queries. Bush will make another speech on Iraq on Wednesday, the last in a series of four addresses leading to Iraq's parliamentary elections.
Monday's trip brought Bush to the home state of one of his leading critics, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Vietnam veteran who had initially supported the war. Hundreds of anti-war protesters booed and chanted, "Shame, shame!" as the president's limo passed.
At a reception five blocks from Bush's speech, Murtha said U.S. troops should be withdrawn. "It's not going to get better with us over there," the congressman said.
The U.S. government-financed Arabic-language television service, Alhurra, carried Bush's remarks live, but they were not shown on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya or any of the Iraqi television stations. Most Iraqis disapprove of the presence of U.S. forces in their country, yet they are optimistic about Iraq's future and their own personal lives, according to a new ABC News poll conducted with Time magazine and other media partners.
"Success will help the image of the United States," Bush said. "Look, I recognize we got an image issue, particularly when you've got Arabic television stations -- that are constantly just pounding America, saying 'America is fighting Islam,' 'Americans can't stand Muslims,' 'This is a war against a religion."'
"We've got to, obviously, do a better job of reminding people that ours is not a nation that rejects religion," he said. "It's difficult. I mean, their propaganda machine is pretty darn intense, so we're constantly sending out messages. We're constantly trying to reassure people."
Bush has appointed Karen Hughes, a longtime confidante, as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Her mission is to reverse anti-American sentiment around the world.
Separately, the Pentagon has acknowledged paying Iraqi journalists and newspapers to print favorable articles.
When asked if the threat of terrorism in the United States has been reduced significantly since the Iraq invasion, Bush said, "I think it's been reduced. I don't think we're safe. What'll really give me confidence to say that we're safe is when I can tell the American people we've got the capacity to know exactly where the enemy is moving."
He said that requires better intelligence gathering and cooperation from other countries. "The long run in this war is going to require a change of governments in parts of the world," Bush said.
Part of Bush's strategy to win more American support has been to be more frank about discussing problems amid the violence in Iraq, without admitting any of the tactical mistakes that critics from both parties have accused him of making. He said Monday that there have been "challenges, setbacks and false starts" but Iraqis are building a lasting democracy.
He spoke out against Iraqi-run prisons where inmates -- mostly members of the Sunni Arab minority -- were apparently victims of abuse at the hands of Shiite-dominated security services.
Some prisoners "appeared to have been beaten and tortured," Bush said. "This conduct is unacceptable and the prime minister and other Iraqi officials have condemned these abuses. An investigation has been launched, and we support these efforts. Those who committed these crimes must be held to account."
Asked for an assessment of training of Iraqi troops, Bush said they are making progress although they still are not able to provide their own protection.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans a private, though unclassified, briefing on Iraq for senators Wednesday. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada complained the briefing would exclude classified matters. Reid said that would prevent a frank exchange between senators and Rice.