WASHINGTON — President Bush mixed an expression of concern about violence and lawlessness in Iraq with an absolute certainty that his course of action is the correct one in a prime-time news conference Tuesday night — his first since the war in Iraq began 13 months ago.
He indicated he will increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq after what he called “a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people.”
Although acknowledging disappointments with developments in Iraq and grief over the losses of Sept. 11, Bush said 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.”
After a 17-minute overview of the situation in Iraq, Bush endured forty-five minutes of sharp questioning from reporters on just two subjects: the uprising and power transfer in Iraq and his actions before and after the 2001 attacks, which have come under renewed scrutiny because of the Sept. 11 commission.
Bush presented what he called a “somber” portrait of recent events in Iraq.
“It’s been really tough for the families,” he said. “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 Tuesday 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 attacks, on the eve of war in Iraq and Tuesday 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 repel uprisings by both 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 the president 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, with less than half the American public approving of his performance in office, according to some polls. With fewer than seven months until the election, and 78 days until the transfer of power in Iraq, Bush faces a tight timetable to regain control in Iraq and to rebuild his credentials on his response to terrorism — long his strongest attribute as president.
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, which he reiterated Monday. 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. A third believed the attacks are short-term, isolated incidents.
Bush’s Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., issued a statement before Bush’s appearance 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.”
Bush’s task Tuesday night regarding Iraq, analysts said, was to rebuild domestic support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq — despite the rebellion there that has claimed the lives of at least 82 U.S. troops this month and nearly 700 since the war began — and to assure Americans that he has a solid plan for Iraq even though the administration does not know which group of Iraqis will assume power when it is transferred on June 30.
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 actions, but his opponents said the information should have sounded more alarms.
Bush said Monday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, that “now may be a time to revamp and reform our intelligence services,” and aides said he will wait for the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, scheduled for delivery this summer.
But White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested the changes may not be imminent. Bush also will consider the recommendations of the commission he appointed in February to investigate the nation’s intelligence operations, the spokesman said. That commission is not scheduled to issue a report and recommendations until March 31, 2005, about four months after Bush faces voters.