President Bush vowed yesterday to use “direct and decisive force” against guerrillas who continue to attack U.S. troops in Iraq and insisted the United States’ resolve will not be shaken by the mounting death toll.
But in a sign of increasing sensitivity to criticism about postwar problems, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer accused the press of ignoring Iraq “success stories,” even as he likened the conflict to the Cold War.
Mr. Bush called restoring Iraq a “massive and long-term undertaking” and said he would not allow insurgents to prompt U.S. forces “to leave Iraq before freedom is fully established.”
“The restoration of that country is critical to the defeat of terror and radicalism throughout the Middle East,” the president told a group of re-enlisting service members in the White House.
“With so much in the balance, it comes as no surprise that freedom has enemies inside of Iraq,” Mr. Bush added. “The looting and random violence that began in the immediate aftermath of war remains a challenge in some areas.”
That violence has claimed the lives of 22 U.S. soldiers since Mr. Bush declared the end of major combat operations May 1. An additional 85 were killed by hostile fire during the war, which began March 19.
L. Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S.-led authority running Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that the attacks are being perpetrated by professional soldiers who had served under the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bremer said investigators gathered evidence of this connection from assailants who have been captured or killed by allied forces.
“It looks to us as if … they are conducted by people who probably had experience in the intelligence services or in the military,” Mr. Bremer said.
Vowing to crush these commandos, he added: “They’re on the losing side of history.”
Mr. Bush agreed.
“There will be no return to tyranny in Iraq,” he said. “Those who threaten the order and stability of that country will face ruin just as surely as the regime they once served.”
The president blamed three groups for the attacks against Americans. These include former Ba’ath Party and security officials; domestic terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Islam; and foreign fighters, some of whom are connected to the al Qaeda network.
“They have attacked coalition forces, and they’re trying to intimidate Iraqi citizens,” Mr. Bush said. “These groups believe they have found an opportunity to harm America, to shake our resolve in the war on terror and to cause us to leave Iraq before freedom is fully established.
“They are wrong and they will not succeed,” he added. “We will stay on the offensive against the enemy, and all who attack our troops will be met with direct and decisive force.”
The president’s speech was aimed at countering growing criticism from Democrats and the press that the administration has been caught unprepared by the ferocity of lingering resistance in Iraq. Mr. Fleischer bristled yesterday when a reporter asked, “Doesn’t it seem that we are ill-prepared to deal with postwar Iraq?”
“You’re ignoring the tremendous number of success stories that have taken place inside Iraq,” the spokesman shot back. “This is one of these cases where if the glass of milk is nine-tenths full, you’ll only see the one-tenth that is empty.”
“Success story?” a reporter said. “You got any?”
“Well, you just haven’t aired them, but there are many,” Mr. Fleischer replied.
He went on to outline the allies’ success at setting up a health care system, immunization programs, electrical service and food distribution.
“I see your eyes are glazing over — this is my point,” Mr. Fleischer told the reporter. “When the news is good, it’s not something that you pay much attention to.”
Although polls show that most Americans believe the fighting in Iraq has been worthwhile, the size of the majority has been slipping in recent weeks. The White House said it was unfazed by the slippage.
“The president is not going to make decisions about what to do in Iraq by the polls,” Mr. Fleischer said. “Polls are volatile; they move. Principles don’t, and the president is dedicated to the principle of helping the Iraqi people to have a stable country because that’s in America’s interest.”
He added: “After all, what’s the alternative, to let the thugs who ran Iraq before take it over again? No.”
The spokesman also made clear that the problems in Iraq are far from over.
“Like the Cold War, it is not something that just goes away quietly overnight,” he said. “It is something that will remain a front-and-center issue that will engage the American people and this president and likely successors to this president as well.”
He added: “Why would anybody think, after all the decades that Saddam Hussein had to build up the hate and the destruction in that country, and how many loyalists he had dedicated to helping him carry out the murders and the torture that he had in that country, that in a mere two months Iraq would look like the United States? It’s not the way it works.”