Bush sticks to war plan

Error acknowledged on eve of Iraqi vote


WASHINGTON -- President Bush made an unusually blunt admission of responsibility for invading Iraq using botched intelligence, while maintaining yesterday that his decision was right given Saddam Hussein's "history and the lessons of September 11th."

Bush called today's election in Iraq a "watershed moment in the story for freedom" and pleaded for patience from the American public, cautioning that the violence in Iraq could continue and that the winners of the parliamentary voting might not be known until early next year.

"I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq," Bush said as he acknowledged that much of the intelligence he used to make the case for war was wrong. But the mission is justified, he argued in a speech delivered on the eve of elections that he hopes will vindicate his policy.

"Saddam was a threat, and the American people and the world [are] better off because he is no longer in power," the president said.

His remarks before about 500 diplomats and foreign policy analysts at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, like his three previous speeches in a series leading up to today's Iraq national election, were marked by admissions of blunders and fitful progress in Iraq.

Bush said he had corrected mistakes in his initial war plan to "meet the hard realities and the facts on the ground." And he sought to allay the public's fears about the war, in which more than 2,100 American soldiers and, according to Bush's own estimate earlier this week, some 30,000 Iraqis have died since the 2003 invasion.

Bush attempted to undercut critics here at home who are pressing for a swift withdrawal by declaring that U.S. troops "cannot - and will not - leave Iraq until victory is achieved."

Many critics of his war strategy, including some Republicans, see the Iraq elections as a turning point that should allow U.S. forces to begin leaving. But Bush sought to dampen expectations that today's balloting would produce immediate stability.

"It's going to take a while," he said. "The work ahead will require patience of the Iraqi people and require our patience, as well."

Democrats, who have met each address with harsh criticism, issued a letter accusing Bush of evading calls for a clear strategy in Iraq.

Forty-one senators, including Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski, called on Bush to make 2006 "a year of transition in Iraq," writing that "we regret that the American people have still not been presented with a plan" with benchmarks and a schedule for reaching them.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said Bush had "failed to provide the American people with any insight into his strategy for completing the mission."

Bush, whose audience included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said the U.S. presence in Iraq is vital to America's national security.

"We must remember that a free Iraq is in our interests, because a free Iraq will be a beacon of hope. And as the Middle East grows in liberty, the American people will become safer, and our nation will be more secure," Bush said.

Republican lawmakers, many of whom have pressed Bush privately to make a more forceful case for a war that is losing the support of their constituents, welcomed the speech.

Several attended, including Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia who said the remarks showed the White House is back on message. Bush answered his critics while re-emphasizing his commitment to finishing the job in Iraq, Kingston said.

"It was a necklace of important policy themes, on Iraq and the war on terror ... and he's putting it all together," he added.

Bush repeated his customary rejection of what he called "an artificial deadline" for drawing down U.S. troops. However, reductions are widely expected in the coming months.

After the Iraqi vote, military officers say, there are tentative plans to reduce troops below 138,000, with an expectation that the number could fall to 100,000 by next fall.

Emerging from a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing with Rice, other Democrats said Bush should move in the wake of the elections to begin transitioning out of Iraq.

"The real question is whether this administration understands that, after this election and the duly elected government of Iraq, whether there is then going to be a recognition that Iraq belongs to the Iraqis, and that we no longer can have an open-ended U.S. commitment," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

In a speech that lasted about a half-hour, Bush worked to place the war in Iraq in the context of his post-September 11th vision for national security, saying the mission would make Americans safer.

"In an age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said, detailing Saddam Hussein's misdeeds. "The United States did not choose war - the choice was Saddam Hussein's."

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