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Bush Vows to Finish Job in Iraq, Stands by Timetable

The president reaffirms his June 30 deadline for handing over sovereignty. He sidesteps questions on responsibility for 9/11.

April 14, 2004|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Against a backdrop of widespread violence in Iraq, President Bush insisted Tuesday night that U.S. troops were making progress in restoring order to the country and that "we must not waver" from plans to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30.

In a rare evening news conference -- the longest of his presidency -- Bush acknowledged that "it's been a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people."

But he acknowledged no errors in his handling of the war in Iraq or failings related to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

"Weeks such as we've had in Iraq make some doubt whether or not we're making progress. I understand that," Bush told reporters in the ornate East Room of the White House. "It was a tough, tough period. But we are making progress. And my message today to those in Iraq is, we'll stay the course. We'll complete the job."

He stressed that resolving the Iraqi conflict successfully was essential to ensuring the security of the United States -- a point he said he would emphasize to voters in the presidential election campaign. Bush also said he would provide whatever military resources were needed to bring democracy to Iraq, including sending more troops.

"The defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere, and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people," he said. "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. We must not waver."

Bush said his administration had taken important steps toward preventing future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, but he acknowledged that "there are some things I wish we'd have done." He said he realized that before Sept. 11, "the country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us. And it's -- it didn't take me long to put us on a war footing, and we've been on a war ever since."

Bush scheduled the news conference, a forum he is known to dislike, as recent opinion polls suggested declining public support for his Iraq policy. It was his first news conference since December and his first in prime time in more than a year.

The president displayed little of the jocularity that often marks his encounters with the press. Instead, he opened with a somber, 17-minute speech in which he argued that recent violence was a temporary setback in a noble mission to bring peace and freedom to Iraq.

The insurgents "want to run us out of Iraq and destroy the democratic hopes of the Iraqi people," Bush said. "The violence we have seen is a power grab by these extreme and ruthless elements. It's not a civil war. It's not a popular uprising."

At least three times, Bush sidestepped questions asking whether he would accept responsibility or apologize for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the closest he came to an apology, he said, "There are some things I wish we'd have done when I look back. I mean, hindsight's easy."

At one point, he acknowledged the stress he was under during the news conference, noting "all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer" to an unexpected question to name his biggest mistake since Sept. 11. "I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it," Bush said.

He later added: "I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not quick -- as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."

With less than eight months to go before the November election, Republican strategists have watched with grave concern as Bush's poll numbers have dropped in recent weeks, due largely to the chaos in Iraq, giving presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry a new opening on the issue.

A Gallup survey earlier this month showed that less than 45% of Americans supported Bush's handling of the war. At the same time, a new Newsweek poll suggested that Kerry had opened up a relatively wide lead -- 7 points -- over Bush.

Kerry accused Bush on Tuesday of failing to provide a clear plan for bringing peace to Iraq.

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

The political context of the debate over Iraq surfaced near the end of the news conference, when a reporter asked if Bush was willing to lose the election because of the Iraq war.

The president replied: "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."

Those stakes, Bush said repeatedly, are "an historic opportunity to change the world."

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