WASHINGTON - President Bush declared Wednesday that the United States is winning the war in Iraq despite the deadliest month for U.S. troops in a year, but he added that he is not satisfied with the situation and vowed to press Iraqi leaders to do more to stabilize their country on their own.
He acknowledged miscalculations in the invasion of Iraq, and disappointments after more than three years there, and offered a rare acknowledgment of the U.S. body count. But Bush's explanation that Iraq is central to a broader war against terrorism, and that a withdrawal from Iraq would invite greater danger at home, remained unchanged from the "stay the course" argument that he had made for months.
What has changed is a political environment in which Republicans once confident of long-term dominance in Washington, D.C., now fear loss of power.
Bush, who has adamantly resisted calls for timetables in Iraq, said that the benchmarks his team announced in Baghdad on Tuesday are not the same thing. "That is substantially different ... from people saying, 'We want a time certain to get out of Iraq,' " he said. "As a matter of fact, the benchmarks will make it more likely we win. Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose."
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Looking at alternatives
Already, Republican elders such as Jim Baker, co-chairman of a bipartisan Iraq Study Group commissioned by Congress and expected to issue a report after Election Day, speak of alternatives to staying the course and what the president likes to call the "cut and run" policies of war critics.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., says several Republicans stand ready to step forward and forge a "bipartisan consensus for change in the Iraq policy" should Democrats make significant gains
Nov. 7. "Iraq is about at the breaking point here, and we don't have much time ... to make some very important decisions to salvage the situation," said Biden, declining to name Republicans ready to negotiate. "I promise you, they will become obvious after Nov. 7."
Trying to walk a careful line between optimism and pessimism less than two weeks before midterm elections, Bush lamented the "unspeakable violence" raging in Iraq while reassuring U.S. voters that he is adapting his approach to address it. He vowed to "carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory" as long as it does not involve withdrawing troops prematurely.
"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said when pressed at an East Room news conference. At the same time, he said, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either. And that is why we're taking new steps to help secure Baghdad and constantly adjusting our tactics across the country to meet the changing threat." He said that he is pushing Iraqi leaders "to take bold measures to save their country" and emphasized that his patience "is not unlimited."
Bush's appearance, made hours after a news conference by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, exposed rising tensions between Washington, D.C., and Baghdad as the fighting worsens. Al-Maliki upbraided U.S. officials a day after they announced benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet over the next 12 to 18 months, dismissing the plan as "the result of elections taking place right now that do not involve us."
Asked who should be held accountable for failures in the war, the president pointed to himself.
"The ultimate accountability ... rests with me," Bush said in an East Room news conference. "That's the ultimate," Bush said. "You're asking about accountability ... Rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about ... If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."
Bush maintained that Iraq has not fallen into "full-scale" civil war and he pledged that U.S. soldiers will not sit in the "crossfire" of such a conflict. He also insisted that the war the United States is waging, with a goal of making the Iraqi government capable of securing and managing its own nation and preventing terrorists from taking their fight to U.S. shores, is winnable.