US President George W. Bush waves to the
Paul J. Richards  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Bush waves as he takes the stage with Ed Tinsley, president of the National Restaurant Association, to speak to association members in Chicago Monday.
updated 5/22/2006 1:46:27 PM ET 2006-05-22T17:46:27

More than three years after the Iraq invasion, President Bush acknowledged to war-weary Americans Monday that the situation is improving only gradually and urged patience with “more days of challenge and loss.”

“Our progress is incremental,” Bush said during a freewheeling question-and-answer session with restaurant industry representatives after a speech on Iraq and the war on terror. “Freedom is moving, but it’s in incremental steps and the enemy’s progress is almost instant on their TV screens.”

The president used his opening remarks to herald the swearing-in of the Iraqi government on Saturday, saying it represents “a watershed event” for the troubled region and “a turning in the struggle between freedom and terror.”

Yet, with the new government facing security challenges and a host of other problems and the U.S. public increasingly disapproving of his leadership of the war, Bush repeatedly returned to the word “incremental” to describe progress there.

Bush sees turning point
The president acknowledged the American lives lost in Iraq, past mistakes and tough days to come.

“Our nation’s been through three difficult years in Iraq,” Bush said. “And the way forward will bring more days of challenge and loss. The progress we’ve made has been hard fought and it’s been incremental. There have been setbacks and missteps like Abu Ghraib. They were felt immediately and have been difficult to overcome.”

Yet, he said the government’s formation is a key turning point.

“The world saw the beginning of something new — constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East,” he said. “This is a free government under a democratic constitution and its formation marks a victory for the cause of freedom in the Middle East.”

Bush spoke as Iraq’s parliament prepared to meet for the first time after swearing in a new government on Saturday. The White House has regarded the establishment of a new government as a key step toward stabilizing Iraq and making discussion of an eventual American troop pullout possible.

Also Monday, the White House announced that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was due in Washington toward the end of the week to discuss Iraq’s future with Bush. Officials in London said the two leaders will likely focus on the future withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq.

The two were expected to meet over dinner and hold a joint press conference, but the specific days were withheld by officials because security precautions.

Two Iraqis singled out for praise
Bush singled out Iraq’s new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, for praise. But he acknowledged that the road ahead will be tough, for them and for the U.S. coalition. The three major security positions — the heads of the powerful Interior and Defense and National Security ministries — remain unfilled because of differences.

“The government is still a work in progress and overcoming long-standing divisions will take time,” the president said. “Iraq’s new leaders know they have a great deal of work ahead to broaden the base of their government and unite the people.”

And Bush did not stop at praise, offering a reminder to Iraq’s leaders to resist any calls to tailor governing to any of Iraq’s ethnic or religious groups.

“They also understand that representing all Iraqis and not just narrow sectarian interests, they will be able to make a decisive break with the past and make a future of progress and opportunity for all of their people a reality,” the president said. “The unity government must now seize this moment and pursue a common agenda for the future.”

Bush was asked by one audience member whether the United States was prepared to deal with a catastrophic event such as a biological attack or pandemic flu.

“We’ve got a good strategy,” the president said. “Whether or not it would work to perfection — you hope you never have to find out.”

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