U.S. efforts beneficial for Iraqis, Bush says


WASHINGTON -- President Bush, defending his war strategy yesterday as Democrats escalate their calls for a change in course, promoted U.S. efforts to get Iraq's economy and basic services back on track, saying they have yielded "quiet, steady progress."

Bush acknowledged shortcomings of his war plan in a speech to foreign policy and defense analysts, and said U.S. forces have worked to adjust. His main focus was what he called "tangible progress" U.S. officials have helped effect in two Iraqi cities, Najaf and Mosul.

Iraqis are "gaining a personal stake in a peaceful future, and their confidence in Iraq's democracy is growing," Bush said in a 34-minute speech at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, the second of four war addresses he plans to make as the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections approach.

Democrats criticized Bush's speech for what they said was a failure to level with Americans about the war. Some renewed calls to withdraw U.S. forces, a proposal that has opened deep divisions in the party.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said Bush's speech was another "missed opportunity." Instead of a plan for rebuilding, Reed said, Bush offered "vague generalities, no specifics about what needs to be done and the time and resources necessary to accomplish it."

Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated veteran who galvanized a partisan debate on Iraq last month by suggesting that U.S. troops should begin leaving, said yesterday that conditions will begin improving if U.S. forces pull back.

"There will be less terrorism, there will be less danger to the United States," Murtha said.

Bush took the opposite view. Drawing parallels between the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor - the anniversary of which was yesterday - and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq to protect Americans from terrorists.

By doing so, Bush said, "we are confronting a direct threat to the American people, and we will accept nothing less than complete victory."

Bush, the second sitting president to address the council, broke with its tradition of having speakers field questions from members. That raised the eyebrows of some in the audience.

The venue, a hotel ballroom, was a striking departure from most of Bush's other war addresses, which are usually delivered to cheering, uniform-clad military audiences.

His remarks yesterday got a tepid reception from the crowd, which interrupted him once with applause.

Bush's speech was part of a public relations offensive his administration has begun in response to plummeting public support for the war, which has prompted lawmakers in both parties to demand a clearer strategy for Iraq, emboldened Democrats to attack the president and pushed his popularity to record lows.

A New York Times/CBS poll to be released today finds that Bush's stock has risen, largely as a result of improved public attitudes about the economy. But doubts remain about Bush's handling of Iraq, with 52 percent saying he intentionally misled the nation in making the case for the war, according to the survey.

"Clearly, this administration has determined it's important for them to try to make their case to the people, because they've got quite a backlash" on Iraq, said Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, who attended the speech.

The only thing that can significantly "move the needle" gauging public opinion of the war is a decrease in violence, Kohut said. Given the rising toll of U.S. deaths and casualties, "it's pretty hard to buck against that with statistics and stories about how things are going," he said.

Bush offered two examples that he said show the advances U.S. forces and officials have made in the reconstruction of Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The progress "doesn't always make the headlines in the evening news," Bush said, "but it's real, and it's important, and it is unmistakable to those who see it close up."

In the southern city of Najaf, U.S. development officials have helped train a local police force, repair homes, and build schools, a water infrastructure and a soccer stadium "complete with new lights and fresh sod," Bush said. Some of the advances have come in "fits and starts," he said.

In the northern city of Mosul, key roads and bridges have been built and electricity and water facilities are being upgraded despite violence, Bush said.

The progress in those two cities is not necessarily indicative of the overall situation, foreign policy analysts said, because Najaf is under the tight control of a Shiite militia and Mosul's predominantly Kurdish population helps defuse sectarian confrontations.

Elsewhere in Iraq, especially in the area west and northwest of Baghdad known as the Sunni Triangle, violence has in many cases prevented U.S. reconstruction efforts or destroyed their fruits.

Bush alluded to those problems, saying insurgents "have been able to slow progress, but they haven't been able to stop it."

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