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Bush Offers Plan to End Chaos in Iraq

In speech at war college, president seeks to stem loss of confidence in his leadership. He expresses humility and pledges to raze Abu Ghraib jail.

May 25, 2004|Maura Reynolds and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

CARLISLE, Pa. — Seeking to shore up eroding public confidence in his leadership, President Bush told the American people Monday night that he has a strategy to turn Iraq's violence and chaos into stability and democracy.

Five weeks before the crucial transfer of sovereignty to an interim government, and five months before he faces reelection, Bush enumerated five steps that he pledged would end with national elections for Iraq in January.

"Our coalition has a clear goal understood by all: to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations," Bush told an audience of 450 senior officers at the U.S. Army War College. "America's task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy; it is to give strength to a friend -- a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf."

The president did not dwell on the prison abuse scandal, which has eroded U.S. credibility around the world and sapped morale at home. But in a symbolic gesture, Bush pledged to demolish the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein tortured thousands and U.S. soldiers took part in abuse of prisoners that the Red Cross has called "tantamount to torture."

"Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values," Bush said, twice stumbling over the pronunciation of the prison's Arabic name.

"America will fund the construction of a modern maximum-security prison. When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated. Then, with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning," he said.

The 32-minute address was the first of a likely half-dozen, the rest expected in coming weeks -- part of an effort to convince the American public that Bush was wise to invade Iraq to depose Hussein. The speech was carried live by cable TV news but not broadcast by major networks, because White House officials did not ask them to preempt their regular programming.

Bush's demeanor exuded confidence, but his words expressed more humility than in past speeches. Several times he acknowledged errors or miscalculations. Estimates of the number of needed troops were too low, he said. Iraqi forces "fell short" in their performance and have needed more training. And Saddam Hussein's loyalists, instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, "melted into the civilian population" to regroup later.

"There are difficult days ahead and the way forward may occasionally appear chaotic," Bush acknowledged. "Yet our coalition is strong. Our efforts are focused and unrelenting and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq's progress."

Bush did not announce a change in course or provide new details of how he expected the transition to proceed. But for the first time, he personally described his approach.

"There are five steps in our plan to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom," Bush said. "We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government, help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, encourage more international support, and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."

The ongoing prison abuse scandal and persistent violence in Iraq have helped sink the president's approval rating to the lowest levels since he took office.

In an ABC/Washington Post poll released Monday, half of Americans surveyed -- an even 50% -- said they disapproved of the president's job performance, and only 47% approved. Bush's rating for handling the situation in Iraq was likewise at its worst of his career, with 58% disapproving.

Bush said he was speaking both to Americans and Iraqis. For Iraqis, he stressed that the occupation was temporary.

"I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power," Bush said. "I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American. Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way. As they do, Iraqis can be certain, a free Iraq will always have a friend in the United States of America."

For Americans, the president warned of more difficulty and longer troop deployments. He acknowledged that commanders had underestimated when they said a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point.

"Given the recent increase in violence, we'll maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary," Bush said.

If commanders need more troops, he said, "I will send them."

As he has in the past, Bush described the choices facing the United States as a duality: perseverance or failure.

"History is moving, and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy," Bush said.

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