CARLISLE, Pa. — President Bush last night laid out his overarching vision for postwar Iraq, starting with the looming June 30 transfer of sovereignty, including a call for the razing of the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
“History is moving, and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy,” he said in a speech at the U.S. Army War College, his first prime-time address in four months.
“Our terrorist enemies have a vision that guides and explains all their varied acts of murder. Our actions, too, are guided by a vision.
“We believe that freedom can advance and change lives,” he added. “These two visions have now met in Iraq and are contending for the future of that country.”
For the first time, Mr. Bush said his vision entails a five-step process, one of which is the turnover of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30. The other steps are helping establish security; continuing the rebuilding of infrastructure; encouraging more international support; and moving toward a national election.
“Completing the five steps to Iraqi elected self-government will not be easy,” he said. “There is likely to be violence before the transfer of sovereignty and after the transfer of sovereignty.”
With his job-approval ratings at record lows, Mr. Bush used his speech before uniformed senior Army personnel to counter weeks of negative news from Iraq and the prison-abuse photos by making a highly symbolic gesture.
“We will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning,” Mr. Bush said at the college.
The president said the demolition, which was contingent on approval of Iraqi authorities, would be part of a U.S.-funded program to modernize the nation’s primitive prison system.
“A new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values,” he said. “America will fund the construction of a modern maximum-security prison. When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated.”
Mindful that growing numbers of Americans are questioning his Iraq policy, Mr. Bush tried to assuage concerns amid his caution that the violence could get worse before it gets better.
“America’s task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend — a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf,” the president said. “And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done.”
The president sought to answer conservative critics who have accused him of failing to root out Iraqi insurgents with sufficient vigor. In Fallujah, for example, insurgents recently killed four American contractors and hung their bodies from a bridge.
“American soldiers and Marines could have used overwhelming force,” Mr. Bush said. “Our commanders, however, consulted with Iraq’s Governing Council and local officials and determined that massive strikes against the enemy would alienate the local population and increase support for the insurgency.
“So we have pursued a different approach,” he added. “We’re making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah.”
By creating an all-Iraqi security force that is patrolling the city, Mr. Bush hoped to pave the way for a broader withdrawal of U.S. forces from the primary security functions of the nation.
The president spent much of the 32-minute speech, which was interrupted numerous times by applause, explaining why he liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and wants to keep more than 130,000 troops there indefinitely.
“I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power,” he said. “I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them Americans.
“Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way,” he said. “And if they do, Iraqis can be certain a free Iraq will always have a friend in the United States of America.”
But if U.S. commanders say that “they need more troops, I will send them,” Mr. Bush said.
The president wanted a high-profile venue for the first of a half-dozen speeches over the next six weeks preparing Americans for the turnover, and last night’s address made him the first sitting president since George Washington to visit the War College campus.
In an effort to stiffen American resolve, the president derided the motives of insurgents and insisted that he would not back down.
“They commit dramatic acts of murder to shock, frighten and demoralize civilized nations, hoping that we will retreat from the world and give them free reign,” he said.
As for critics who have called for the United States to withdraw from Iraq, Mr. Bush made it clear that he has no such intention.
“The failure of freedom would only mark the beginning of terror and violence,” he told his audience. “But my fellow Americans, we will not fail.
“We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty,” he said.