Tuesday, December 13, 2005

PHILADELPHIA - President Bush, speaking from the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution, yesterday said Iraq’s first parliamentary elections on Thursday “won’t be perfect,” and warned that no country has formed a democracy without “challenges, setbacks and false starts.”

The president compared the fledgling Middle East democracy to the birth of the United States 229 years ago, in the third of four scheduled speeches to detail the White House strategy for victory in Iraq.

“Our nation’s first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed,” the president said in a speech at a hotel in the shadow of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was debated.

“It took years of debate and compromise before we ratified our Constitution and inaugurated our first president. It took a four-year civil war, and a century of struggle after that, before the promise of our Declaration was extended to all Americans,” he said.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Iraqi soldiers, who will guard polling places Thursday, and hospital patients cast early ballots, even as al Qaeda in Iraq and four other Islamic extremist groups denounced the parliamentary elections as a “satanic project” that violated God’s law.

The militant groups stopped short of an explicit threat to attack polling stations Thursday, but vowed to “continue our jihad to establish an Islamic state ruled by the book and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.” The early voting went ahead despite the sound of detonations rumbling across the capital and at least 15 deaths in ongoing violence.

The president has used his two recent speeches on Iraq to acknowledge setbacks on the road to establishing a democracy, but noted yesterday that in just 2 years, “the Iraqi people have assumed sovereignty over their country, held free elections, drafted a democratic constitution and approved that constitution in a nationwide referendum.”

“There’s still a lot of difficult work to be done in Iraq, but thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people, the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom,” he said to the World Affairs Council.

U.S. officials hope Sunni Arabs will vote in large numbers, a development that could produce a government capable of winning the trust of the Sunnis and defusing the insurgency. That would enable U.S. and other foreign troops to begin heading home next year.

Most Iraqis disapprove of the presence of U.S. forces in their country, yet they are optimistic about Iraq’s future and their own personal lives, according to a new ABC poll, which showed three-quarters say they are confident about the parliamentary elections. More than two-thirds expect things in their country to get better in the coming months.

In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other party members called Thursday’s elections an important step forward toward bringing U.S. troops home, but said much work still has to be done in the aftermath and urged haste.

“I regret that the American people have still not received a plan that identifies the remaining political, military and economic objectives that must be met in order to succeed,” Mr. Reid said. “The window of opportunity for the Iraqi people and this administration to get things right will not stay open forever,” he said.

During a rare question-and-answer session with attendees, Mr. Bush was asked about the Iraqi death toll. “I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis” since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Shortly after the speech, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the number was “not an official U.S. government estimate.” He said the figure was based on “public estimates cited by media reports.”

Democrats, however, seized on the number. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, demanded the Bush administration release all information it has on the number of Iraqi civilian deaths. “It is far past time for this sort of admission from this White House,” he said.

On the president’s speech, Democrats said the president has failed to articulate his case.

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and a decorated Vietnam veteran who had initially supported the war in Iraq, reiterated his current stance that U.S. troops should be withdrawn.

“The Iraqis are not against democracy, they are against our occupation,” he said. “It’s not going to get better with us over there,” Mr. Murtha said at a Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce reception for his state’s congressional delegation.

The president also used his speech to castigate Syria and Iran, warning the two neighboring nations to stop meddling with Iraq.

“The vast majority of Iraqis do not want to live under an Iranian-style theocracy, and they don’t want Syria to allow the transit of bombers and killers into Iraq and the United States of America will stand with the Iraqi people against the threats from these neighbors,” he said, drawing loud applause from the gathering of about 300 in an ornate ballroom at the Park Hyatt hotel.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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