Likening Iraq, Vietnam `false,' president says

Bush calls occupation a short-term burden, worthwhile to fight terror

U.S. voters `will stay with me'

He insists he has made no mistakes in Iraq policy

April 14, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- President Bush, struggling to regain Americans' confidence in his Iraq policies, said last night that the year American troops have fought and died in Iraq is a "relatively short period of time" and to waver now would betray the fallen and embolden terrorists.

The president acknowledged that U.S. forces have been experiencing "tough weeks," but he rejected fears of a Vietnam-style quagmire as "false," warning that such a comparison "sends the wrong message to our troops and the enemy."

To make sure security is restored in Iraq, he said, he would approve whatever requests military leaders make for troops and resources and has instructed commanders to use "decisive force as necessary."

"Nobody likes to see dead people on their TV screens," Bush said. "I don't. It's a tough time for the American people to see that. It's gut-wrenching."

The president noted the political risks for him of the two-front war against Iraqi insurgents, but he insisted that the American people "will stay with me" in November's election.

Bush's prime-time news conference, only his third since taking office, was aimed at countering growing unease among Americans in the wake of the bloodiest two-week period in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, marked by 83 deaths of American troops and the capture of hostages from a number of countries.

U.S. military deaths stand at 683 since the war began in March 2003, with a mounting toll of U.S. contractors, missionaries and other civilian personnel.

The president used more than a quarter of the one-hour time allotted to a news conference to deliver an unusually long opening statement defending what he called America's "historic mission" in Iraq, saying that country could become either peaceful or a terrorist haven that would threaten the United States and the world.

The consequences of failure, he said, are "unthinkable."

"Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world," Bush said in the statement. "We must not waver."

"The terrorists who take hostages or plant a roadside bomb near Baghdad [are] serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid, and murders children on buses in Jerusalem, and blows up a nightclub in Bali and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a Jew," Bush said.

The last reference was to the slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by militants in Pakistan.

Refusing to abandon the June 30 deadline for shifting political power in Iraq from the U.S. occupation authority to a new Iraqi government, Bush said Iraqis "are not happy they're occupied, but they do want us there to help with security."

American troops - now numbering 135,000 in Iraq - are expected to remain in the country for years.

Bush's display of resolve sidestepped the growing public worry that the administration lacks a formula for a successful exit from Iraq, as well as criticism, even from some supporters of the war, that he failed to develop international support that would have eased the burden of the occupation.

He highlighted the efforts he is now making to involve the international community, including working with a United Nations representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, in trying to develop an interim government.

He also said he would send his deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, to tell Iraq's wary neighbors in the Arab world "how they can help."

The president had remained largely out of public view at his ranch in Texas for much of last week while American occupation forces in Iraq waged an offensive against Sunni militants in the town of Fallujah who had ambushed and killed four U.S. contractors, while simultaneously battling the armed militia of a firebrand Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

While he was in Texas, public testimony by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks failed to dispel questions about how engaged Bush and his top aides had been before then in trying to foil al-Qaida plots inside the United States.

Under mounting pressure Saturday, the White House released the contents of an intelligence briefing that Bush received a month before the attacks. Contained in what is called the Presidents Daily Brief, it cited "suspicious activity" and possible preparations for hijackings among suspected al-Qaida operatives inside the country.

"Frankly, I didn't think there was anything new" in the document, dubbed the PDB, Bush said. "I mean, major newspapers had talked about bin Laden's desires on hurting America."

He criticized the FBI for having possibly supplied incorrect information for the briefing, which said it had 70 field investigations under way against al-Qaida suspects.

Commission members have said many of those investigations involved not terrorist plots but fund-raising.

"I expect information that comes to my desk to be real and valid," Bush said.

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