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Bush Points to Progress in Iraq Amid Criticism and Casualties

August 09, 2003|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas — The White House on Friday mounted a spirited defense of U.S. operations in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to major combat there, saying that the defeat of Saddam Hussein's government has benefited Iraqis and Americans alike.

"We've made a lot of progress in 100 days, and I'm pleased with the progress we've made but fully recognize we've got a lot more work to do," Bush said after meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The White House, stung by criticism as American casualties have mounted since May 1, also released a 24-page report titled "Results in Iraq: 100 Days Toward Security and Freedom." The report focuses on nine areas, including democratic reforms and women's rights. In it, the administration says that "the liberation of Iraq has improved the lives of Iraqis and the safety and security of the world."

This morning, the president will use his weekly radio address to discuss how the U.S.-led war against Hussein has improved Iraqis' lives.

Although Bush's decision to conduct a preemptive war received near-unanimous support in Congress, in recent weeks some Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates as well as some Republican politicians have publicly criticized the administration's efforts.

Critics have pointed to the failure of U.S. forces to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and they have accused the administration of overstating its justification for going to war. They focus specifically on Bush's State of the Union address in January, in which he asserted that Iraq had sought to obtain uranium in Africa to restart its nuclear weapons program.

Last week, in his first news conference since the start of the war, Bush said he took responsibility for the controversial claim. But in his remarks Friday, Bush dismissed criticism of the administration's Iraq policy as "just pure politics."

"The American people know that we laid out the facts, we based the decision on sound intelligence, and they also know we've only been there for 100 days," Bush said. "A free Iraq is necessary for a -- is an integral part of the war on terror."

Bush declined to predict how much longer U.S. forces would be in Iraq or how much the United States' continued occupation and reconstruction of the country would cost. He said his administration would do whatever it takes for "however long it takes to win the war on terror."

"The best way to secure America is to get the enemy before they get us," he told reporters outside his ranch house here. "And that's what's happening in Iraq. And we're grateful for the sacrifices of our soldiers."

The administration's aggressive defense of its Iraq policy comes as a new poll indicates that Americans are losing patience with Bush's focus on national security issues.

The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that 57% of those surveyed believed that Bush should be devoting more of his attention to the economy, up sharply from 38% in January. Only 27%, down from 43%, said that the U.S.-declared war on terrorism should be Bush's primary focus.

According to the poll, Bush's approval rating has declined to 53%, the lowest level since shortly before the United States initiated the war against Iraq in March. It found that 37% of respondents disapproved of Bush's job performance, the highest figure since the start of his presidency.

Bush had told reporters here Wednesday that he believed his tax cuts would eventually stimulate the economy but that more needed to be done. He called on Congress to pass an energy plan and lawsuit reform.

But Bush made clear Friday that national security remains his top priority -- and the poll indicated that a solid majority still supports his decision to go to war against Iraq -- 63%, down from 74% in late April.

"You know, the American people should suspect that this administration will do what is necessary to win the war on terror," Bush said, with Rumsfeld at his side.

"That's my pledge to the American people. They have got to understand that I will not forget the lessons of Sept. 11. And those lessons are loud and clear: that there are people who want to inflict harm on the American people."

During a week in which the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad was bombed and U.S. forces' post-May 1 death toll from hostile fire in Iraq climbed to 55, Bush's statements and the new White House report were meant to highlight positive results.

The report presented developments -- virtually all previously cited by the administration or newspaper articles -- that the White House said were prompted or made possible by the overthrow of Hussein.

Among the report's lists are "10 ways the liberation of Iraq supports the war on terror," "10 signs of better security," "10 signs of better infrastructure and basic services" and "10 signs of democracy." The report also cites evidence of improvements in the lives of Iraqi children and "steps to improve the lives of Iraqi women."

Signs of progress cited include the ongoing effort to restore services -- electricity, water, education, police and health care among them -- that were disrupted by the war.

Other signs reflect genuine change in the Iraqi way of life: the creation of a national Governing Council that includes three women; efforts to locate missing persons, exhume mass graves and catalog past human-rights abuses; the creation of more than 150 newspapers; a more equitable distribution of food and medicine; the reorganization of Iraq's Olympic committee, and the widespread availability of satellite dishes for sale.

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