Bush resolute as violence rises in Iraq

With bombings escalating, president says U.S. forces will not be intimidated

`We're not leaving'

White House putting pressure on Iran, Syria to stop flow of fighters

October 29, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With bloody suicide attacks escalating in Iraq, President Bush said yesterday that the United States remains undeterred and would not be intimidated by guerrilla fighters who want to breed chaos and "cause people to run."

He ascribed the attacks to those "who can't stand the thought of a free and peaceful Iraq" and who "believe that we're soft, that the will of the United States can be shaken by suiciders."

"We're not leaving," the president said bluntly.

Bush spoke at a hastily called news conference in the Rose Garden at a time when violence aimed at symbols of the American occupation is emboldening critics and making it harder to argue that progress is being made in securing Iraq.

Eager to reverse a slide in public backing for the military campaign, Bush drew a comparison between militants in Iraq and the al-Qaida hijackers who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Both groups, he asserted, hoped to defeat the United States through fear and panic.

"It's the same mentality. We'll just destroy innocent life and watch the great United States and their friends and allies crater in the face of hardships."

He added: "We must never forget the lessons of September the 11th."

Last month, Bush acknowledged that he had seen no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 plot. But the president still seems determined to invoke memories of Sept. 11 when speaking of Iraq.

Yesterday, he blamed members of Hussein's Baathist Party, and those he called "foreign terrorists" for the attacks, which killed several dozen people in Baghdad on Monday and others in the city of Fallujah yesterday. He said his administration is pressuring Syria and Iran to secure their borders so militants can't cross into Iraq.

The president also made a rare acknowledgment that the magnitude of the guerrilla attacks in Iraq has forced the Pentagon to rethink its defenses.

"The tactics to respond to more suiciders driving cars will alter on the ground," he said. "More checkpoints, whatever they decide, how to harden targets will change. And so we're constantly looking at the enemy and adjusting."

But he said there was still no need for more U.S. troops.

Bush's essential message was that Iraq has become "a dangerous place" - a phrase he uttered several times - but that turning away is not an option.

Alluding to Sept. 11, he warned ominously that the violence in Iraq could be followed by fresh attacks on U.S. soil.

"The terrorists will strike, and they will kill innocent life," he said. "They will strike and kill in America, too. We are at war."

For weeks, Bush and his aides have waged an aggressive public-relations drive. They have sought to draw attention away from images of violence and deaths of U.S. soldiers by highlighting how they say life is improving for average Iraqis.

Asked whether he was leveling with the public in stressing positive news from Iraq, Bush noted again that he has long described the situation as "dangerous."

But, he said: "There's more than just terrorist attacks that are taking place in Iraq. There's schools opening, there are hospitals opening."

Bush was asked whether he had spoken prematurely in declaring a victory on May 1, when he landed dramatically on the carrier Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit and declared major combat operations in Iraq over. He replied that he had warned back then that "dangerous work" still lay ahead and that a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" on the carrier deck had been hung by Navy personnel, not by White House staff.

(A White House spokeswoman told the Associated Press last night that, in fact, the White House had hired a private vendor to create the sign. But she insisted that the banner was the Navy's idea.)

Polls show growing unease about the president's handling of Iraq. In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released yesterday, 43 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq has made them less confident in Bush's ability to manage other problems, up from 15 percent in April.

Speaking for 48 minutes in his 10th formal news conference, Bush appeared worn, four days after returning from a frenetic 10-day swing through Asia. He spoke in subdued terms, showing only flashes of the swagger he often displays with reporters. At one point, though, Bush quipped to a reporter who had asked a pointed question about campaign fund-raising, "You're not invited to lunch."

The president vowed to campaign aggressively for re-election on his foreign policy record. "I'll say that the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership, and America is more secure," he said.

That comment drew a jab from Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader, who said, "I think that we still have a lot of work to do to be more secure and more free." Daschle added, "I think we have lost a tremendous amount of credibility around the world."

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