WASHINGTON - President Bush, working to bolster fading U.S. support for the war in Iraq shortly after a car bomb had killed six Marines in Fallujah, reassured Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that "there's not going to be any timetables" for withdrawing American troops.
"You don't have to worry, Mr. Prime Minister, about timetables," Bush told al-Jaafari during a news conference after the two leaders' first White House meeting since al-Jaafari took office. "We are there to complete a mission, and it's an important mission."
Bush's statement came as Pentagon officials said a suicide car bomb in Fallujah had killed six U.S. Marines, at least two of them women, and injured 13 more, many of them women. The bomb struck the Marines' convoy Thursday night as it moved through the city west of Baghdad.
The female Marines were in Fallujah specifically to deal with Iraqi women - patting them down at checkpoints, for instance - as U.S. troops work to secure the city in Anbar province.
The attack capped a deadly week in Iraq, during which there were at least nine other car bombings. There have been 480 car bombings in Iraq since the transfer of sovereignty from a U.S. provisional authority to Iraqis almost exactly a year ago, according to a count by the Associated Press, attacks that killed more than 2,170 people and wounded more than 5,500 others.
In Washington, Bush's Oval Office meeting with al-Jaafari and the news conference that followed offered the president a high-profile opportunity to defy increasingly urgent calls from lawmakers, including some congressional Republicans, for a specific exit timeline for U.S. troops in Iraq.
`Shake our will'
Setting a timetable for withdrawal would invite insurgents to "just go ahead and wait us out," said Bush, adding that doing so "concedes too much to the enemy."
With national polls showing support for the war dropping, Bush has embarked on a public-relations campaign to counter the images of carnage broadcast daily, with direct appeals to the public laying out his reasons for the U.S. presence there.
The effort intensifies next week, when Bush is scheduled to address the nation during prime time Tuesday night from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Yesterday, Bush suggested that Americans who are questioning the mission in the face of a mounting death toll are playing into insurgents' hands.
Insurgents know that "the carnage that they wreak will be on TV," Bush said. "They're trying to shake our will."
"Nevertheless, progress is being made," Bush said, outlining Iraqi efforts to establish a democratic government and American efforts to train Iraqi troops.
The insurgents are engaged in a public-relations effort of their own, Bush said.
"They figure if they can shake our will and affect public opinion, then politicians will give up on the mission. I'm not giving up on the mission."
Al-Jaafari worked to help Bush rally support behind the war, saying he is seeing "steady and substantial progress" in Iraq and relying on U.S. support to subdue the violence.
`More than money'
"This is not the time to fall back. We owe [it] to those who have made sacrifices to continue toward the goals they fought," said al-Jaafari, who began his remarks in English to underscore the common purpose of the United States and Iraq.
The Iraqi leader repeatedly expressed gratitude toward Bush and U.S. troops for toppling Saddam Hussein and helping Iraqis build a democratic government and competent security forces.
"You have given us something more than money; you have given us a lot of your sons, your children that were killed beside our own children in Iraq. Of course this is more precious than any other kind of support we receive. You have to be proud before your own people," al-Jaafari said.
He asked for more help from the United States and other nations, calling on Bush to follow the lead of Harry S. Truman after World War II, when he initiated a multimillion-dollar European assistance plan named for his secretary of state, George C. Marshall.
"We hope that Mr. Bush will try to redo a Marshall Plan, calling it the Bush Plan, to help Iraq, to help the Iraqi people," al-Jaafari said.
Rebuilding Iraq is now Iraqis' responsibility, Bush stressed, adding that U.S. reconstruction money is being spent there.
`A difficult chore'
Bush, acknowledging the role that wavering public support for the war has played in his own drop in popularity, interrupted a reporter inquiring about his sluggish second-term agenda to supply a loaded term used to characterize U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
"A quagmire, perhaps?" Bush said curtly, with a hint of a smile.
Bush said he wasn't surprised that Congress was "balking at doing big things" and that the public was growing anxious about the situation in Iraq.
He called the task of helping Iraq "a difficult chore," but sought to portray it as part of his larger mission of spreading democracy around the world.
"My job is to set an agenda and to lead toward that agenda, and we're laying the foundation for peace around the world," Bush said.
In other violence in Iraq, three separate roadside bombs exploded yesterday near U.S. military convoys and a police patrol, officials said.
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.