updated 12/18/2005 3:04:23 PM ET 2005-12-18T20:04:23

President Bush is seizing on Iraq’s elections to claim significant progress as he faces an uproar in Congress over whether he exceeded his powers in conducting the war on terror.

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Speaking from the Oval Office, Bush was addressing the nation following Dick Cheney’s surprise visit to Baghdad where the vice president asserted that Iraq’s emerging political structure ultimately will take responsibility for its own security.

The Pentagon hopes to be able to reduce U.S. troop levels as Iraqi security forces become more capable of defending their own country, but it is unclear when that point will be reached. The usual U.S. troop level this year of about 138,000 was strengthened to about 160,000 this fall out of concern for a potential rise in violence during voting in October and December.

Bush’s address followed a string of weekend attacks by insurgents in Iraq that pierced three days of relative calm. Nineteen people died, including two relatives of a senior Kurdish official.

The president’s embrace of the Iraqi political process comes amid revelations that the National Security Agency has engaged in domestic surveillance without court warrants for the past four years.

House and Senate Democratic leaders, and at least two Senate Republicans, called for congressional hearings and investigations. Bush said the eavesdropping was critical to saving American lives in the war against al-Qaida and consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said it is “extremely dangerous” for the president to wrap himself in the law and then refuse to identify a law or a constitutional provision which justifies a wiretap on American citizens without court approval.

Sunday night’s speech is the president’s fifth in less than three weeks on Iraq, as Bush describes the path he wants to take in 2006.

A new poll shows that a strong majority of Americans oppose an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. The AP-Ipsos poll found 57 percent of those surveyed said the U.S. military should stay until Iraq is stabilized.

“This is a remarkable couple of days for the Iraqi people,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also appearing on NBC. “They went out and voted in huge numbers. ... I’ve heard a number of leaders — Sunni, Shia and Kurd — say that their goal is to find people across lines with whom they can work.”

There is skepticism on Capitol Hill about the U.S. military’s ability to sustain forces in Iraq indefinitely and about the ability of Iraqis to carry the load.

“We failed to expand the Army and Marine Corps as many of us wanted to happen a long time ago,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” McCain said that even though militias control some parts of the Iraqi military and there is still corruption, there now are certain towns where the Iraqi military has been able to take over from U.S. troops.

Regarding a turnover to Iraqi troops, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Bush “has to tell us how we’re going to get there. The people on the ground said there is one battalion that can fight alone.

“The last speech he gave, he used the word ‘victory’ 14 times. What does that mean?” asked Reid, appearing on “Fox News Sunday.”

Levin said Iraqis must be told the United States will reconsider its presence unless the new constitution is revised to give the Sunni-Arab community a bigger stake in running the country.

“That’s the club, that’s the leverage which we must exercise,” said Levin. “They’ve got to unify in order to beat the insurgency.”

A disabled Iraq war veteran who is running for Congress in Illinois said she thinks going into Iraq was a mistake.

“We should have been fighting the enemies that attacked us at home on 9/11,” said Major Tammy Duckworth, appearing on ABC’s “This Week.” “We should have been out there trying to catch Osama bin Laden.”

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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