WASHINGTON - President Bush launched a high-stakes drive to rebuild support for American policy in Iraq and his own sagging popularity by announcing plans last night for a new U.S.-funded prison that would replace notorious Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad.
Five weeks before the scheduled handover of limited authority to an interim Iraqi government, Bush faced an American public increasingly skeptical that he has a concrete plan for achieving his goals in Iraq. He offered no new details about the transition in a prime-time speech that mainly repackaged previous statements.
Addressing the prison scandal that has inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq and undermined public support at home, Bush said the United States will pay for construction of a maximum-security facility in Iraq and, if the new government agrees, eventually raze Abu Ghraib as a "fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning."
Abu Ghraib, once known as Saddam Hussein's torture chamber, has become the focus of international condemnation over the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers. Bush, who stumbled over pronunciation of the prison's name, again deplored the "disgraceful conduct" of "a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."
The president's likely Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, was measured in his response. In a statement released by his campaign, Kerry noted the general nature of Bush's comments, "most of which we've heard before," and repeated his desire to see the president "genuinely reach out to our allies so the United States doesn't have to continue to go it alone."
Bush's largely upbeat speech was the opening phase in a public relations campaign that, advisers hope, stops the erosion of public support for his handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath.
He appeared more confident and forceful than in recent appearances related to Iraq. The effects of a bicycle spill at his ranch over the weekend could be seen in a cut above his left eye, but makeup largely covered other abrasions, including a large one on his chin.
`A critical moment'
The president cautioned that the anti-U.S. insurgency would probably be more violent and brutal in the period before and after the June 30 transition. But he warned that U.S. failure in Iraq would be far worse.
"The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory" that would lead "to more bombings, more beheadings and more murders of the innocent around the world," he said, describing this period as "a critical moment" in Iraq.
Though his primary audience was the American electorate, Bush sought to convey to the "proud people" of Iraq that he understood their impatience with the continuing presence of U.S. forces in their midst.
"I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power," Bush said. "I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American."
Then he added, to loud applause from a friendly audience of uniformed officers at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., that "a free Iraq will always have a friend in the United States of America."
Bush acknowledged recent failures by Iraq's nascent security forces in defending themselves, a reference to mass desertions in Fallujah after violence erupted this spring. He said U.S. commanders would continue to use "flexible" tactics - "measured force or overwhelming force" - in response to security challenges.
The Bush administration is expected to announce as early as today that Gen. George W. Casey, vice chief of staff of the Army, will be the new U.S. commander in Iraq. The current commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, has come under increasing criticism in connection with the Abu Ghraib abuses.
Bush offered no details about precisely what role U.S. forces would play in providing security for Iraq; what authority, if any, the interim Iraqi government would have over U.S. forces; or how long the United States would maintain its military presence there. Bush said the current U.S. troop strength of 138,000, which the Pentagon had projected through the end of 2005, will be maintained for "as long as necessary."
`A decisive blow'
As he has from the outset of the war last year, Bush cast the U.S. presence in Iraq in terms of the post-Sept. 11 campaign against terrorism. He said success in Iraq would "give momentum to reformers" in the Middle East and deal "a decisive blow to terrorism."
Bush's critics argue that Iraq became a terrorist hotbed largely as an outgrowth of the U.S.-led invasion. But Bush, describing a potential domino effect in the Middle East, said the United States has a duty to prevent "Taliban-like rule" from being imposed "country by country" across the region.