Bush takes the offensive on crucial issue of Iraq

Move could stiffen Republican support

October 26, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, tackling the top issue of the 2006 election, declared yesterday that the United States is "absolutely" winning the war in Iraq but that "we lose" if he heeds Democrats' calls for troop withdrawals.

The president's comments appeared designed to stiffen the support of Republican voters, whose enthusiasm and turnout on Nov. 7 could be crucial to keeping the party in control of Congress. Outside strategists said the White House effort also seemed to be aimed at helping vulnerable GOP candidates - many of whom fear that the unpopular war could cost them their jobs - by rebutting the notion that Bush is stuck on a failing course and unable to turn things around in Iraq.

But by spotlighting the issue that is his party's greatest liability, they said, Bush could deepen public anxiety, particularly among the large percentage of voters who no longer trust the administration's handling of the war.

"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either," Bush said, as he acknowledged voters' misgivings during an hourlong news conference. "But we cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose in this war."

Bush said he is flexible about changing tactics to cope with the escalating violence in Iraq and acknowledged that this has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops there in a year.

Bush aides and party officials have been rebutting the notion that the administration wants to "stay the course" in Iraq, saying that U.S. forces are constantly reviewing and adapting tactics as circumstances change. The new language, and Bush's decision to use a nationally televised forum to highlight it, amount to an acknowledgement of what polls have shown for months: that most voters are deeply disillusioned about the war and believe that Bush has handled it poorly.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said the White House appears to be responding to Republican candidates who are, in effect, saying, "Mr. President, we're getting killed out here" because of' Iraq.

Compounding Bush's challenge, as the midterm election campaign enters its last dozen days, were new comments from Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who chafed publicly at pressure from U.S. generals for his government to set a schedule for curbing sectarian violence, calling their comments politically motivated.

The Iraqi "government represents the will of the people, and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it," al-Maliki said at a Baghdad news conference. "I am positive that this is not the official policy of the American government but rather a result of the ongoing election campaign."

Some Democrats said they share the Iraqi leader's assessment, accusing Bush of offering an empty pre-election suggestion that he is ready to change his approach in Iraq without providing a new plan.

"This is a struggle on the part of the administration to look as though they're trying to change course without saying they're changing course. ... That does relate to the election," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "Thank God for elections," he added, "because I think it gives a chance for the American people to express themselves in a way which has an impact on elected officials, and I think will be a referendum on Iraq policy."

Bush rejected that idea during his news conference, arguing that tax cuts would also be a key issue. But Iraq was clearly his focus, and he worked to shoot down some of the most prevalent concerns about the conflict - including that he has committed troops to an open-ended mission and that Iraq is falling fast into a civil war.

"Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions," Bush said.

Al-Maliki has agreed to a "schedule" for key tasks, including disarming militias, Bush said, mentioning twice that his "patience" with the Iraqi prime minister is "not unlimited." But he would not provide a timeline for achieving U.S. aims and faulted Democrats for calling for one.

"Benchmarks will make it more likely we win," Bush said. "Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose."

Bush was mostly somber during the meeting with reporters, breaking his grim mood only a few times to tease questioners and ridicule unnamed Democrats who, he said, were "measuring their drapes" and "dancing in the end zone" at their presumed victories on Election Day.

The barbs seemed tailored to prod Republican voters into frustrating Democrats' plans, something party strategists say could prove crucial as many voters are making up their minds.

Former Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said Bush is aiming to sway a Republican "come-home vote" among party stalwarts who are disillusioned with the president and his congressional allies and who have been showing up in polls as undecided or favoring a Democrat.

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