PHILADELPHIA – President Bush estimated Monday that 30,000 Iraqis have died in the war since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003, but he offered no second thoughts about ordering the attack and said the threat of terrorism against the United States has subsided as a result.
“Knowing what I know today, I’d make the decision again,” Bush told a questioner after a speech here. “Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country.”
The estimate marked the first time Bush has personally provided an assessment of the Iraqi death toll, a highly sensitive subject that his administration largely avoids discussing at any level, much less from the presidential lectern. Although the Pentagon keeps careful track of Americans killed in Iraq – now exceeding 2,100 troops – military officers have said they do not count Iraqi dead.
Bush cautioned that further casualties lie ahead, casting Iraq as the key battleground in a war with terrorist groups that could play out elsewhere as well. “The long run in this war is going to require a change in governments in parts of the world,” he said. Bush did not elaborate on which ones he had in mind, but a few moments later he mentioned his confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear program and earlier he had tough words for two of Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria.
The comments came during a rare audience question-and-answer session after a speech here on Iraq’s upcoming elections, the third of four speeches leading up to Thursday’s vote. After being criticized for refusing to honor the custom of taking questions at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week, the president opened the floor after his address to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.
The first person he called on was Didi Goldmark, 63, a former libel lawyer from nearby New Hope, Pa., who asked him how many Iraqis have died in the war. Unlike aides who have been asked that question, Bush gave a direct answer.
“I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis,” he said. “We’ve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.”
Bush moved on to the next question without identifying how he arrived at the figure or how many were killed by U.S. forces and not Iraqi insurgents and foreign militants. Aides later said it was not a government estimate but a reflection of figures in news media reports. Still, Bush offered it without qualification, in effect accepting it as a reasonable approximation.
The Iraqi death toll has been the subject of considerable debate. A group of British researchers and anti-war activists called Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties between 27,383 and 30,892, not counting Iraqi troops or insurgents, by tabulating incidents reported in media and human rights reports. Iraqi authorities have said roughly 800 people die a month in violence there, a rate that if typical over the course of the conflict would come to 25,600.
An epidemiological study published in the British journal the Lancet last year estimated 100,000 deaths in the first 18 months since the invasion based on door-to-door interviews in selected neighborhoods extrapolated across the country, an estimate other experts and human rights groups considered inflated.
The country’s transition to a democratic government reaches a milestone with Thursday’s election of a new parliament. Bush used his speech to hail the progress toward a new democratic order. While acknowledging “challenges, setbacks and false starts,” he defended his insistence on pushing forward with a succession of deadlines despite his administration’s failure to win acceptance by the Sunni Arab minority.
Speaking at a hotel just blocks from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was debated, he noted that America traveled a rocky road forging its democracy. But he said “the call of liberty” in Iraq would echo across the region. “From Damascus to Tehran, people hear it and they know it means something,” he said. “It means that the days of tyranny and terror are ending and a new day of hope and freedom is dawning.”
To make the point, Bush chose the home state of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., whose call for pulling out of Iraq caused a sensation. Bush was accompanied by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
A few blocks away, Murtha offered a rebuttal to Bush’s comparison to the American experience. “If they’d have kept the French here after 1776 … we’d have thrown them out,” he said. “And that’s what I say about what’s happening in Iraq right now. The Iraqis are not against democracy. They’re against our occupation.”
Some of the five questions Bush took from the audience challenged his assertions. Faeze Woodville, 44, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran and now living in Stratford, Pa., asked why he keeps linking the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the Iraq war despite no evidence of a direct connection. The president said “9/11 changed my look on foreign policy” and he learned “that if we see a threat we’ve got to deal with it.”
Woodville said in an interview afterward that she felt Bush ducked her question. “He must think we’re morons,” she said. “There is no link, and he knows it as well as I. And I and others in the audience are insulted. …”
In response to another question, Bush acknowledged the United States has “an image issue” abroad, but he blamed it on Arabic television stations “that are constantly just pounding America.” And he asserted that the invasion of Iraq has diminished the terrorist threat at home. “I think it’s been reduced,” he said. But “I don’t think we’re safe.”