Bush puts Iraqi dead at about 30,000

Figure in line with other estimates

war is worthwhile, president tells Pa. group

December 13, 2005|By WARREN VIETH | WARREN VIETH,LOS ANGELES TIMES.

PHILADELPHIA -- President Bush said yesterday that the war in Iraq had claimed the lives of about 30,000 Iraqi citizens in addition to about 2,140 U.S. troops, but that the establishment of a durable democracy there would ultimately justify the sacrifice.

Referring to America's difficult transition to self-rule as a precedent, Bush said that this week's parliamentary elections in Iraq are the next major milestone in a transformation that will help contain global terrorism and encourage democratic reforms throughout the world.

"The year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom," Bush told the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, a nonpartisan educational group.

In a departure from his usual practice, Bush ended his remarks with an unscripted question-and-answer session with audience members.

The first question came from a woman who asked Bush how many Iraqis had been killed since the U.S.-led coalition seized control of the country 2 1/2 years ago.

"How many Iraqis have died in this war?" Bush responded. "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."

It was the first time Bush had discussed publicly the total death count in Iraq. White House officials said later that the 30,000 figure was not an official U.S. tally, but rather the best estimate available based on news reports.

It appeared to be in line with some previously published estimates from independent monitors. The independent group Iraq Body Count puts the death toll at 27,383 to 30,892, based on its survey of media reports, the Red Cross and other sources.

Bush said there will be more casualties before the United States can withdraw its troops from Iraq, but he said he remains convinced that he did the right thing in deciding to wage war there and that bringing the troops home now would be a mistake.

Bush traveled to the birthplace of America's government to deliver the third of four major policy addresses designed to shore up public support for the administration's Iraq policy as that country holds parliamentary elections.

The president's speech was part of a new White House offensive aimed at justifying Bush's decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's government in March 2003, and his refusal to withdraw U.S. troops before a new government is established and Iraqi security forces are able to contain the insurgency on their own.

Opinion polls indicate that public support for the war effort is flagging. Bush's approval ratings have fallen sharply in recent months amid growing concern about the administration's rationale for the Iraq offensive, the indefinite timetable for U.S. military engagement there, and the rising number of U.S. casualties. However, at least one recent poll, an AP-Ipsos survey, found that Bush's approval rating had risen to 42 percent in early December, its highest level since the summer.

Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is a decorated Vietnam veteran and military booster, held a news conference in another Philadelphia hotel after Bush's speech to explain why he had become convinced the United States should withdraw from Iraq within six months.

Murtha said most of the insurgents were now Iraqis who regarded the United States as the enemy. "There's no way we can win a war when you've lost not only the hearts and minds of the people, [but] when you've become your own enemy," Murtha said.

"A substantial and continuing reduction of America's military presence throughout 2006 is in order," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in response to Bush's speech. "If America wants a new Iraqi government to succeed, we need to let Iraqis take responsibility for their own future."

Although Bush has resisted growing pressure to set a firm schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces, the administration has signaled its intent to reduce the number of troops deployed in Iraq next year.

Bush, who spoke at a downtown hotel blocks from the Liberty Bell, said Iraq's transition is not unlike the transition of the United States from colonial rule to constitutional democracy.

The eight years between the end of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of a permanent federal government were chaotic, Bush said, and included an attempted military coup, an assault on Congress, rejection of the Articles of Confederation and years of contentious debate over the terms of the Constitution.

"No nation in history has made the transition to democracy without facing challenges, setbacks and false starts," the president said.

In two other recent speeches, Bush outlined the military's efforts to train Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for the nation's security and the steps taken to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and stabilize its economy.

Tomorrow, the day before most votes will be cast, he will give a fourth speech summarizing the administration's overall strategy for achieving what he has called "total victory" in Iraq.

In January, more than 8 million Iraqis went to the polls to elect an interim parliament. Nearly 10 million participated in an October referendum to approve a new constitution.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who dominated the government under Hussein, largely boycotted the January election and refused to endorse the constitution, which was backed by Iraq's two other key groups, the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds.

Warren Vieth writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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