Wednesday, March 22, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that future administrations will have to grapple with how and when to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, indicating that he doesn’t see an end to U.S. commitments until at least 2009.

“That’ll be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq,” Mr. Bush said at his second press conference of the year, during which he also said Iraq is not in the middle of a civil war and defended his continued commitment of U.S. troops.

“If I didn’t believe we could succeed, I wouldn’t be there,” he said. “I wouldn’t put those kids there.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Mr. Bush was signaling an open-ended commitment that “was never contemplated or approved by the American people.”

“President Bush must accept that he has to change course, reject the notion of an open-ended commitment in Iraq, and finally develop the plan that allows our troops to begin to come home,” the Nevada Democrat said.

He said the conflict there has turned into a “low-grade civil war,” and he and other Democrats have charged that Mr. Bush is out of touch with the reality on the ground there.

But in a press conference dominated by Iraq, Mr. Bush didn’t back down as he defended the decision to go to war and the current U.S. policy. However, he did acknowledge that the coalition forces have had to change both their plans for rebuilding and how they went about training Iraqi security forces.

“No question about it; we missed some time as we adjusted our tactics,” he said.

The war in Iraq entered its fourth year this week as polls show American voters increasingly skeptical about the chances for success and about Mr. Bush’s prosecution of the war.

A Harris poll released last week found that 46 percent of Americans say the situation in Iraq is getting worse for U.S. troops, 10 percent more than in December. The poll also found that 48 percent said invading Iraq was a bad decision, compared with 37 percent who said it was not.

Mr. Bush has said he doesn’t govern by polls, and yesterday, he said it’s his job to try to change those numbers by explaining his strategy to Americans. The president is in the midst of a series of speeches on the war on terror and delivers the third today in West Virginia.

The first speech, last week, focused on U.S. efforts to counter improvised explosive devices, which have accounted for more than one-third of U.S. casualties since the war began and more than two-thirds of the deaths in February alone. His second speech, on Monday, focused on how coalition forces are learning lessons and applying them in some regions in Iraq.

Where Democrats see danger in the sectarian violence, which has killed more than 1,000 Iraqis since the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Samarra last month, Mr. Bush said he saw encouraging signs as well.

“This is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn’t,” he said. “The way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war … the army didn’t bust up into sectarian divisions, the army stayed united.”

Mr. Bush said he takes seriously Muslim terrorists’ intention to overthrow Middle Eastern governments and believes them when they say they are waiting for the U.S. to lose its nerve and withdraw from Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to troops at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois yesterday, went after critics of the war that, he said, “seem almost eager to conclude that the whole struggle is lost.”

“The only way to lose this fight is to quit — and that is not an option,” Mr. Cheney said, calling progress in Iraq difficult but “steady.”

Mr. Bush said failing in Iraq would also hurt his efforts to foment democracy in Iran.

“If people in Iran, for example, who desire to have an Iranian-style democracy, Iranian-style freedom, if they see us lose our nerve, it’s likely to undermine their boldness and their desire,” he said.

Mr. Bush at one point started to say he was “confident” of success in Iraq but stopped himself and instead said he was “optimistic.”

He also said he backs Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying he’s “done a fine job” of fighting the war on terror and modernizing the military and should not resign, as some Democrats and conservatives have suggested in recent months.

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