WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time he erred by failing to order a military buildup in Iraq last year and said he was increasing U.S. troops by 21,500 to quell the country's near-anarchy. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," Bush said.
The military increase puts Bush on a collision course with the new Democratic Congress and pushes the American presence in Iraq toward its highest level. It also runs counter to widespread anti-war passions among Americans and the advice of some top generals.
In a prime-time address to the nation, Bush pushed back against the Democrats' calls to end the unpopular war. He said that "to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale."
"If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home," he said.
The president also said that "America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act."
In addition to extra U.S. forces, the plan envisions Iraq committing 10,000 to 12,000 more troops to secure Baghdad's neighborhoods.
Even before Bush's address, the new Democratic leaders of Congress renewed their opposition to a buildup. "This is the third time we are going down this path. Two times this has not worked," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said after meeting with the president. "Why are they doing this now? That question remains."
Some area veterans were supportive of Bush's speech.
However, Rodger Brown of Cape Girardeau thought Bush's message was not forceful enough.
"As a veteran I feel very strongly if you ever, ever commit to do something and then say, 'I'm backing out or I quit,' you become, in the eyes of everyone who is watching, a coward and someone who can be rode roughshod over," said Brown, a Vietnam War veteran and a past commander of the Cape Girardeau VFW chapter.
"We've got to stand up and say democracy is important to us and freedom is important to us and we're not going to kowtow to a part or radical faction of some religion," he said.
Another Vietnam veteran, Jim Carver of McClure, Ill., also supported Bush and believes the speech will have an immediate impact on public opinion.
"People are going to start to say, 'I want everybody home, but I want them to come home and leave Iraq in a condition to support itself,'" he said. "These are people who have never tasted the freedom we enjoy in the United States."
Missouri Democrats in Congress blasted Bush's plan, while Republicans generally offered cautious support.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said the proposal is "grounded on a stubbornness of the president to realize that what is happening in Iraq is not going to be helped by additional troops." Joining McCaskill in opposing the plan was Democrat Ike Skelton, of Lexington, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He called the proposal "three-and-a-half years late and several hundred thousand troops short."
Republican Sen. Kit Bond, who last week questioned the need for a surge in troops, defended the latest strategy as sound because it hinges on Iraqis taking more responsibility for quelling the violence.
Other Republicans, though, were more skeptical.
"I am pleased to hear from the president that this deployment of additional troops to Iraq is not 'open-ended,"' said Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, of Cape Girardeau. "Still, I am skeptical of this stratagem when it is extremely urgent that we give the responsibility for keeping law and order in Iraq to the Iraqis."Emerson said Bush should decrease the American military presence in Iraq and stress diplomacy with other nations in the region, such as Syria.
Senate and House Democrats are arranging votes urging the president not to send more troops. While lacking the force of law, the measures would compel Republicans to go on record as either bucking the president or supporting an escalation.
Bush also said it also was a mistake to have allowed American forces to be restricted by the Iraqi government, which tried to prevent U.S. military operations against fighters controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful political ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The president said al-Maliki had assured him that "political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated."
Bush's approach amounts to a huge gamble on al-Maliki's willingness -- and ability -- to deliver on promises he has consistently failed to keep: to disband Shiite militias, pursue national reconciliation and make good on commitments for Iraqi forces to handle security operations in Baghdad.
"Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents," the president said. "And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."
He said American commanders have reviewed the Iraqi plan "to ensure that it addressed these mistakes."
Bush said that under his plan, U.S. forces will work alongside Iraqi units and be embedded in their formations.
Responding to concerns from U.S. commanders, Bush said American troops will have a clearly defined mission to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, assist in the protection of the local population and "to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs."
But Bush warned that the strategy would, in a short term he did not define, bring more violence rather than less.
"Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties," he said. "The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will."
Bush's warning was echoed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of a troop increase. "Is it going to be a strain on the military? Absolutely. Casualties are going to go up," the senator said.
Bush said he considered calls from Democrats and some Republicans to pull back American forces. He concluded it would rip Iraq apart.
"Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay even longer and confront an enemy that is even more lethal," the president said. "If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home."
Bush's blueprint would boost the number of U.S. troops in Iraq -- now at 132,000 -- to 153,500 at a cost of $5.6 billion. The highest number was 160,000 a year ago in a troop buildup for Iraqi elections.
The latest increase calls for sending 17,500 U.S. combat troops to Baghdad. The first of five brigades will arrive by next Monday. The next would arrive by Feb. 15 and the reminder would come in 30-day increments.
Bush also committed 4,000 more Marines to Anbar Province, a base of the Sunni insurgency and foreign al-Qaida fighters.
Staff writer TJ Greaney contributed to this report.