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Wednesday, April 14, 2004 - Page updated at 09:02 A.M.
Bush acknowledges tough week, vows to 'finish work of the fallen'
By Dana Milbank and Mike Allen
In his first since the war in Iraq began 13 months ago, he indicated he will increase the number of U.S. troops there after what he called "a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people."
Although acknowledging disappointment with developments in Iraq and grief over the losses of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said that there was no reason to apologize for the government's performance before the attacks, and that he could think of no mistake he had made since the attacks.
Bush said that he will dispatch Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Iraq to help negotiate the June 30 transition to Iraqi sovereignty, and that he will return to the United Nations to increase international participation in Iraq after the transfer of power.
"I'd like to get another U.N. Security Council resolution out that will help other nations to decide to participate," he said.
The president gave his clearest indication yet that he will increase the U.S. troop level in Iraq from the current 135,000, rather than decrease it to 115,000 as had been planned.
He said Army Gen. John Abizaid, who is overseeing Iraq operations, "is 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."
Bush pledged to "finish the work of the fallen" and presented what he called a "somber" portrait of recent events in Iraq. "There's no question it's been a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people," he said. "It's been really tough for the families. I understand that. It's been tough on this administration. But we're doing the right thing."
The president acknowledged more adversity in Iraq than he has in other recent remarks, but he held to his view that the rebellion there is relatively small. Those responsible "want to run us out of Iraq and destroy the democratic hopes of the Iraqi people," he said in an opening statement.
"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. Most of Iraq is relatively stable. Most Iraqis by far reject violence and oppose dictatorship."
Though Bush has had a dozen news conferences since taking office, his appearance last night was his first prime-time news conference since the war in Iraq began. He has criticized such events as opportunities for network correspondents to preen, instead favoring informal exchanges with reporters or hastily called news conferences early in the day. But he has resorted to prime-time news conferences during particularly crucial moments in his presidency: a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on the eve of war in Iraq, and last night.
Bush was under unusual pressure to speak to the nation in a highly visible forum. As the violence spread through Iraq last week, leading the U.S. military to battle uprisings by Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Bush was out of public view for five straight days on his ranch in Texas. Republican lawmakers, who were back in their districts for Easter and heard from constituents, implored Bush to go before the American people.
The White House saw the session as a way for Bush to address twin troubles the Iraq rebellion and the Sept. 11 commission's hearings that have caused his political standing to drop to the lowest of his presidency.
A Newsweek poll, released Saturday, found that six in 10 Americans thought the administration underestimated the threat of terrorism before the attacks. At the same time, most Americans do not share Bush's optimistic view about the Iraq insurgency. In a Time magazine poll released Sunday, 45 percent viewed the recent violence as a major uprising that will have a long-term effect in Iraq, and 17 percent saw it as the start of a new war. One-third believed the attacks are short-term, isolated incidents.
Before Bush's appearance, his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., issued a statement criticizing the president for not recruiting more foreign help in Iraq. "It's been almost a year since the President declared 'mission accomplished' but after the last several weeks it's even clearer that the mission is not accomplished in Iraq," Kerry said. "The president needs to address how he's going to fix this."
On the subject of the Sept. 11 commission, Bush has been battling in recent days to avoid damage from an Aug. 6, 2001, presidential intelligence briefing, declassified Saturday, that indicated al-Qaida was in the United States, was interested in hijackings and was believed to have designs on New York and Washington. Bush has said the information was not specific enough to trigger action, but his opponents said it should have sounded more alarms.
Bush has acknowledged that he calls on reporters from a list that has been prepared in advance, and White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked whether the news conference would be "a free-for-all" or whether the president would "handpick reporters."
"He has the seating chart before him," McClellan said. "There are some that he wants to make sure to get to, and then others he can call on from the seating chart."
Asked whether there are some "that he doesn't want to get to," McClellan said with a smile, "Of course not."
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