WASHINGTON – President Bush on Sunday night hailed Thursday’s Iraqi elections as a vital step toward stabilizing that nation, but he warned that despite the political progress, more violence lies ahead as Iraq struggles to establish a democracy amid a raging insurgency.
Speaking in a nationally televised prime-time address, Bush made a direct appeal to war opponents, assuring them that he understands their arguments but asserting that there is no choice but to forge ahead. “I have heard your disagreement and I know how deeply it is felt,” Bush said. “Yet, now there are only two options before our country – victory or defeat.”
The speech was the president’s most forthright statement to date about how often Iraq has confounded his own expectations, from weapons of mass destruction that were not found to the problems of reconstructing a civil society in Iraq.
Despite the U.S. death toll – which is approaching 2,200 – and widespread skepticism about the war among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and citizens across the country, Bush said the United States is making steady gains in Iraq, and he suggested these will lead to troop reductions in the year ahead.
“Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day,” Bush said. “I don’t believe that. Our military commanders don’t believe that. Our troops in the field, who bear the burden and make the sacrifice, do not believe that America has lost. And not even the terrorists believe it.”
Bush also repeated his warnings against a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, saying “to retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor – and I will not allow it.”
The 17-minute address capped an extraordinary campaign in recent weeks by the White House to recover the political ground lost since U.S. forces invaded Iraq 33 months ago. Over the past month, Bush has released a new plan for victory, held private White House briefings for skeptical members of Congress and delivered four other speeches laying out a more detailed explanation of his war strategy while uncharacteristically acknowledging some mistakes in implementing it.
Bush continued that theme Sunday , saying the continued carnage from roadside bombs and suicide attacks in Iraq does not constitute defeat. “This proves that the war is difficult – it does not mean that we are losing,” he said.
The White House hopes the success of Iraq’s parliamentary election, particularly in drawing the Sunni minority to the polls, proves to be a turning point in the war. Others are not so optimistic. Even before the president’s speech, Democrats assailed his handling of Iraq and warned that the country could plunge into civil war if Bush does not force a reconciliation among factions.
During his speech, Bush acknowledged the war has been thornier than the administration had projected. “The work has been especially difficult in Iraq – more difficult than we expected,” Bush said. “Reconstruction efforts and the training of Iraqi security forces started more slowly than we hoped. We continue to see violence and suffering.”
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