updated 12/14/2005 8:08:18 PM ET 2005-12-15T01:08:18

President Bush accepted responsibility on Wednesday for going to war with faulty intelligence, but firmly defended a decision that has deeply divided the country. “We cannot and will not leave Iraq until victory is achieved,” he said.

“It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As president I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq,” the president told a foreign policy forum on the eve of elections to establish Iraq’s first permanent, democratically elected government. “And I’m also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we’re doing just that.”

The president said that Thursday’s parliamentary elections in Iraq are a watershed moment that will inspire democracy across the Middle East. But with public opinion running against his mission, Bush still was left defending his decision to go to war nearly three years ago.

“We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of brutal dictator,” Bush said. “It is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in his place.

“My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Saddam was a threat and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power,” the president told the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Most Americans see progress on establishing democracy in Iraq, but they are less optimistic about efforts to prevent a civil war and reduce the number of civilian casualties, polling has found.

Almost six in 10 — 56 percent — said they thought progress is being made in the establishment of democracy, but almost as many — 53 percent — said they thought the United States was losing ground in reducing civilian casualties, according to the poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Model democracy?
As he usually does, Bush asserted that the Iraq of the future, with a functioning democracy and thriving economy, would be a model for other nations in the turbulent Middle East. But he added a specific reference to the inspiration that a free Iraq could provide to reformers in the region’s two governments most hostile to the United States — Syria and Iran.

The president is banking on a successful election to signal that his war plan is working. If the voting establishes a successful government, it eventually could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The president could use some more good news in Iraq. With the violence showing no sign of waning, most Americans are unhappy with his handling of the war and some lawmakers are questioning how long the troops should stay.

At a news conference before Bush’s speech Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said: “Tomorrow’s elections must signal a turning point in the relationship between America and Iraq.” After the elections, he said: “Iraq must get its political house in order and get the security forces it needs to defend itself.”

The Nevada Democrat said judging by the last three Iraq speeches, the president “is still not focused on what needs to be done in convincing the American people and showing the American people what his plan is in Iraq.”

“For the president to truly take responsibility for intelligence failures, he must level with the American people about how his administration hyped intelligence and cherry-picked information to justify the march to war,” Reid said in a statement.

Four Iraq speeches
Bush has been pushing back aggressively against the negative image of his war mission with a series of four speeches in recent weeks. Thursday was the last in the series.

Answering critics who have said he had offered no clear definition of victory in Iraq, Bush offered a succinct summation.

“Victory will be achieved by meeting certain objectives: when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can protect their own people, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks against our country,” he said. “These objectives, not timetables set by politicians in Washington, will drive our force levels in Iraq.”

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., criticized the speech on Wednesday, saying the president “continues to mischaracterize, linking terrorism to insurgency” and “telling us a story that is not true,” NBC News’ Mike Viqueira reported.

In the Senate, 40 Democrats and one independent signed a letter to Bush on Wednesday in which they urged him to be more frank with Iraqis and the American public.

The administration, the letter said, should “tell the leaders of all groups and political parties in Iraq that they need to make the compromises necessary to achieve the broad-based and sustainable political settlement that is essential for defeating the insurgency in Iraq within the schedule they set for themselves.”

Bush, the letter said, also must present “a plan that identifies the remaining political, economic, and military benchmarks that must be met and a reasonable schedule to achieve them.”

Bush got a better reaction from a group of House Democrats that he hosted for a briefing on Iraq before the speech, who emerged complimentary of the president’s strategy and his recent doses of candor about the situation there. The briefing was given by military commanders via videoconference from the field and top administration officials at the White House.

“There was a dose of reality that I have not heard before,” Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., told reporters outside the White House afterward. “Frankly I found it refreshing.”

Eyes on election
Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, said the importance of the Iraq election will depend on the whether the legislature that is elected revises the constitution to address the concerns of Sunnis.

“By all accounts, the Sunnis are participating, so they will have some representation,” Mann said. “But what kind of government gets formed is very much up in the air. And if that government doesn’t revise the constitution to deal with the concerns, then we could be set back rather than move forward.”

Iraq has already held two elections this year — the election of the transitional government in January and the adoption of the constitution in October. Mann said that although there was a sense of euphoria after the first election, it has been followed by more violence that has damped support for the president’s mission.

NBC News contributed to this report.

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