President defends plan for Iraq war

Annapolis speech aims to quell calls for withdrawal


President Bush declared yesterday that he had a clear strategy for victory in Iraq, seeking to quiet calls for a U.S. withdrawal with a major speech that drew harsh attacks from critics who said he had offered no new details.

Warning of "tough times ahead," Bush told an auditorium filled with midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy that he shares Americans' twin desires "to see our troops win" and "come home as soon as possible."

But his remarks left out what many, including some in his party, have been demanding: detailed milestones that must be reached before U.S. troops can begin withdrawing.

"Every man and woman who volunteers to defend our nation deserves an unwavering commitment to the mission - and a clear strategy for victory," Bush said in a 45-minute speech, the first in a planned series of four in the next two weeks designed to confront mounting public concern about the war.

Democrats and liberal groups were quick to dismiss Bush's words - and an accompanying White House strategy paper - as stale, failed policies wrapped in a glossy new package.

The liberal Center for American Progress ridiculed Bush's effort as a "national pat on the back," criticizing his failure to offer a schedule for accomplishing U.S. goals in Iraq.

As part of the administration's effort to turn around public opinion about the war, the White House released a 35-page document, titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," that detailed the administration's goals in Iraq and progress it said had been made in reaching them.

The packet was a response to calls for Bush to provide more specifics about his Iraq policy. But the document, and Bush's remarks, did not include benchmarks that troops and officials must attain to succeed, or a time frame for reaching those goals.

Also, his address appeared to raise more questions than it answered, including how long it would take before Iraqis could provide their own security.

Bush focused on the efforts of U.S. troops to train Iraqis, a task that he said "will take time and patience."

The president's other speeches, to be delivered before the Dec. 15 elections in Iraq, will outline other elements of his plan, including the creation of a democratic political system and a viable economy in Iraq, White House aides said.

The Annapolis speech marked a shift away from Bush's recent rhetoric, which had strongly denounced Democrats who accused him of twisting intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion.

Instead, stung by intensely negative public reaction to the increasingly bitter debate, Bush said he welcomed the discussion. "It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly - even at times of war," Bush said.

Still, the president chose a sympathetic and high-spirited audience for his latest message. With a backdrop that read "Strategy for Victory," he faced a hall full of midshipmen who stood, clapped and pumped their fists, serenading him with their fight song and sending him off with a "Fire it up!" cheer normally heard at football games.

Bush's only mention of his critics came when he said he disagreed strongly with those urging a time frame for a U.S troop pullout.

He suggested that his opponents were counseling surrender, a policy that would leave the nation vulnerable and "send a message across the world that America is a weak and an unreliable ally."

Setting an "artificial deadline" for withdrawal "would vindicate the terrorists' tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America," he said.

As long as he is in office, "America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins," Bush said.

A measure passed by the Senate last month, with the support of 41 Republicans, called on Bush to provide a schedule for meeting key objectives in Iraq.

Bush explicitly rejected those calls. U.S. troop levels in Iraq will be driven by conditions on the ground and the recommendations of his commanders - "not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington," he said, drawing the loudest and most prolonged applause of the speech.

Bush acknowledged the difficulty U.S. troops have had training Iraqi forces, saying it's "an enormous task, and it always hasn't gone smoothly." But he painted a generally rosy picture of the mission, saying Iraqi forces have made "real progress" over the past year and are taking the lead in some battles.

Critics have questioned the degree of progress U.S. troops have made in readying the Iraqi military, noting that just one battalion can operate independently from American forces.

Bush said that wasn't a fair way to evaluate Iraqi readiness. Iraqis can take over security operations even if some units are unable to operate entirely on their own, he said.

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