Bush - Troops will 'finish work'

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Conceding a couple of "tough weeks in Iraq," President Bush signaled Tuesday night he is ready to increase American troop strength in the country, adding he intends to usher in a new era of democracy and "finish the work of the fallen."

At a combination speech and news conference at the White House, Bush rejected a suggestion that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam -- a quagmire without ready 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."

One year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bush said a recent spike in savage 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 U.N. envoy would help decide which Iraqis would be placed in charge.

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."

Iraq figures in Bush's decline in 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.

Bush opened the session in the White House East Room with a 17-minute statement -- roughly the duration of a medium-length address to the nation. The audience included top aides, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and political guru Karl Rove among them -- and uncounted millions watching the prime-time appearance on television.

While Bush opened with remarks about Iraq, the questions were broader -- focusing as well on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush sidestepped at least two opportunities to say he wanted to apologize or take personal responsibility.

"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 did not say so, but even after the attack, he initially opposed creation of the agency. He 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 material 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.

Sen. John Kerry, Bush's Democratic rival, said the president 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 U.N."

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