San Diego Union Tribune

April 14, 2004

'We'll stay the course'
Bush says he'll send troops, resources needed to finish the job in Iraq


By FINLAY LEWIS
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON President Bush, seeking to brace the nation for a prolonged struggle, vowed last night to "stay the course" until Iraq becomes a self-governing and free state, even if it requires sending in more troops.

Bush acknowledged that grinding battles with Shiite and Sunni insurgents, and perhaps foreign militants, in Iraq have put coalition forces through several "tough weeks," and may have taken a toll on his prospects for re-election.

But in a solemn reference to the nearly 680 American troop fatalities since the invasion about 13 months ago, Bush promised, "We will finish the work of the fallen."

His outlook for the immediate future was delivered in a warning tone. "A desperate enemy is also a dangerous enemy, and our work may become more difficult before it is finished," Bush said during a prime-time news conference from the White House East Room.

Taking issue with critics who fear that an anti-American insurgency is spreading in Iraq, Bush argued that the country is being roiled by a power grab that falls well short of being a civil war.

"It's not a popular uprising," Bush said. "Most of Iraq is relatively stable."

The president also vowed to hold to the June 30 deadline for transferring sovereignty to Iraqis. But he said American and other coalition forces would remain in the country as long as necessary to guarantee its security.

Appearing at only the third-prime time news conference of his presidency and the first since the invasion of Iraq, Bush told the nation and the world that he would not flinch in view of the stakes.

"Now is the time and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world," Bush said. "We must not waver."

With public opinion polls measuring growing voter questions about the war in Iraq and a tight re-election campaign against Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Bush began the 62-minute news conference with an unusually lengthy opening statement that lasted 18 minutes.

Afterward, Kerry criticized Bush for failing to spell out steps to stabilize the situation in Iraq. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has called for greater involvement by the United Nations.

"Unfortunately, he offered no specific plan whatsoever," Kerry said. "Rather, the president made it clear that he intends to stubbornly cling to the same policy that has led to greater risk to American troops and a steadily higher cost to the American taxpayer."

Speaking just hours after a hearing by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush was asked whether he felt responsible for the attacks or owed the country an apology. He said he grieved for the victims and their families but said sternly, "The person responsible for those attacks was Osama bin Laden."

Bush described the country as locked in a deadly conflict against the proponents of a "fanatical political ideology."

"No one can predict all the hazards that lie ahead or the costs they will bring," he said. "Yet in this conflict there is no safe alternative to resolute action.

"The consequences of failure in Iraq would be unthinkable."

As a sign of his determination, the president said, "If additional forces are needed, I will send them. If additional resources are needed, we'll provide them."

He said the decision is in the hands of Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

But Bush added, "He's clearly indicating that he may want more troops. It's coming up through the chain of command. And if that's what he wants, that's what he gets."

The president also made a direct promise to the people of the war-torn country: "My message today to those in Iraq is, we'll stay the course, we'll complete the job."

Bush did not directly confront the allegations of his former White House counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, who told the 9/11 commission that the Bush administration failed to make terrorism a priority before the attacks. Bush suggested any shortcomings were long in the making.

"I don't think the prior government could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale," he said, apparently referring to the Clinton administration.

The president did mention one regret: that the new Department of Homeland Security a post-9/11 creation he initially opposed had not been created much earlier.

Kerry criticized Bush for refusing "to acknowledge a single mistake in the course of his presidency." Although Bush said he couldn't think of any during the news conference, he acknowledged there had been some.

Asked to describe possible mistakes both before and after 9/11, Bush ended a meandering reply by saying, "I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have."

At another point, he said. "There are some things I wish we'd have done when I look back."

Asked about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush expressed frustration that one of his main rationales for going to war so far has not been borne out.

"Of course, I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet," Bush said. But, he added, "I still know Saddam Hussein was a threat, and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein."

The president also raised the possibility that such weapons could yet be found, and noted that there is evidence that Hussein retained the capability to produce significant quantities of chemical and biological weapons even after United Nations inspectors had destroyed large amounts of such dangerous materials in the 1990s.

"I look forward to hearing the truth as to exactly where they are," Bush said. "They could still be there."

The president admitted that the conflict has probably cost him political support.

"Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens," he said. "It's a tough time for the American people to see that. It's gut-wrenching."

He expressed confidence in his re-election but said, "The American people may decide to change. That's democracy."

Later, he added: "I don't plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that I've got a plan to win the war on terror, and I believe they'll stay with me. They understand the stakes."

He also cast the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in a broader political and even religious context, saying that the ultimate aim of American military might is to bring freedom and democracy not only to Iraq but also to the greater Middle East.

"Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world," Bush said. "And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."

Without elaboration, he rejected the premise of a reporter's question that likened the Iraq conflict to the war in Vietnam.

"I think the analogy is false . . . (and) sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy," Bush said.