WASHINGTON — A subdued President Bush, presenting his long-awaited new blueprint for Iraq, acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that his previous strategy had failed and said that averting defeat required more than 20,000 additional American troops and a different relationship with the government in Baghdad.
In a striking concession, Bush said that the last year in Iraq had turned out to be the opposite of what he had expected -- an explosion of sectarian violence instead of growing national unity among the Iraqi people and a winding-down of American military involvement.
He said the reversal occurred in part because there had not been enough troops to provide security in Iraqi neighborhoods -- a strong criticism of his policy since the earliest days of the invasion.
"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," Bush said. "It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq."
Outlining his new approach in a somber address from the White House library, Bush acknowledged the growing opposition to the war, saying: "The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me."
But he said that the response should be to increase, not decrease, the U.S. commitment to stabilize the troubled country that the U.S. military invaded more than three years ago. "If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home," Bush said.
Bush did not say how long the increase would last. Military strategists have said that anything less than 18 months would probably be ineffective, but Democrats and some Republicans are eager to see troop levels begin to drop before the 2008 campaign season heats up. And administration officials noted that one benchmark the Iraqi government had set for itself was to take charge of security in Baghdad by the end of this year.
"We aren't putting a time horizon on it. We think that is troublesome," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the president.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki must provide more of its own forces in Baghdad, Bush said, with U.S. troops acting primarily in support. And he said the Iraqi government must end political and sectarian interference with security operations and permit U.S. forces to operate in all areas of the city.
Democrats were nearly unanimous Wednesday in their condemnation of Bush's plan, comparing it to a Vietnam-type escalation of the war and vowing to oppose it.
"This proposal endangers our national security by placing additional burdens on our already overextended military, thereby making it even more difficult to respond to other crises," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a joint statement.
"While we all want to see a stable and peaceful Iraq, many current and former senior military leaders have made clear that sending more American combat troops does not advance that goal," they said.
Democrats in both chambers are planning to put forward nonbinding resolutions against the plan, and some Senate Republicans have indicated they might support them.
Most congressional Republicans stood behind the president. But Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, a past critic of Bush, called the troop buildup "the president's hail Mary pass."
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a longtime Bush defender and potential presidential candidate in 2008, switched course, saying he believed a "political rather than a military solution" was in order.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime proponent of more troops, commended Bush for acknowledging failure and setting a different course. "I believe that this can succeed; I really do," McCain said. "I believe it's not just an increase in troops, it's a change in strategy."
The division among Republicans may be a reflection of sinking public support for the war. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week found that 12% of those surveyed supported sending more troops and that 85% favored withdrawing -- either immediately (15%), within 12 months (39%) or over as many years as needed (31%).
A new approach
Bush's manner and language Wednesday night were more tempered than in previous Iraq speeches; he appeared to be making an effort to seem both conciliatory and confident. The setting for the speech -- the library in the White House basement -- provided a less-formal backdrop than the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room.
The heart of the president's new approach is to reverse the way American forces are used.