BUSH
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
President Bush walks away after finishing a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/14/2004 8:31:46 AM ET 2004-04-14T12:31:46

In an address almost midway through the deadliest month for Americans since Baghdad fell last spring, President Bush acknowleged Tuesday night the United States has suffered a series of “tough weeks in Iraq” but said American forces will “finish the work of the fallen” and usher in a new era of freedom and democracy.

Speaking of U.S. troop strength in Iraq, Bush said his administration is "constantly reviewing their needs. If additional forces are needed, I will send them. If additional resources are needed, we will provide them. This government will do all that is necessary to insure the success of their mission."

Bush's comments from the East Room of the White House came shortly after Pentagon officials told NBC News that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will order up to 20,000 American troops, forces now preparing to rotate out of Iraq, to remain there for as long as an additional three months.

At least 83 U.S. forces have been killed and more than 560 wounded this month, according to the U.S. military, as American troops fight on three fronts: against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Shiite militiamen in the south and gunmen in Baghdad and on its outskirts. At least 678 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

Condemns 'power grab' by extremists

More than a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bush said a recent spike in savage violence is neither a civil war nor a popular uprising. “The violence we’ve seen is a power grab by ... extreme and ruthless elements” from inside Iraq and from outside.

The president equated the roadside killings of coalition troops and the deaths of civilians in Iraq with terrorist actions in Spain, Israel, Bali, Pakistan and the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. “None of these actions are the work of a religion, Bush said. "All are the work of a fanatical political ideology."

Bush also reiterated June 30 as the unshakeable date when "Iraqi sovereignty will be placed in Iraqi hands.” “On June 30, when the flag of free Iraq is raised, Iraqis will assume full responsibility” for self-governance, he said.

"It is important that we meet that deadline," he said. "Iraqis don't support an indefinite occupation, and neither does America. We are not an imperial power ... we are a liberating power, as nations in Europe and Asia can attest."

"We will succeed in Iraq," Bush said. "We’re carrying out a decision that has already been made and will not change. Iraq will be a free, independent country, and America and the Middle East will be safer because of it."

Bush made some of his remarks in a lengthy statement at the outset of a prime-time White House news confererence, only the third in more than three years in office.

Bush used the news conference to reassure the nation about rising casualties and instability in Iraq and defend the administration’s response to a pre-Sept. 11 memo that warned of threats from al-Qaida.

Both issues are critical to Bush’s re-election strategy, which hinges on the president’s record on national security.

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Defending policies
Bush rejected a suggestion that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam — a quagmire without ready exit. “I think that analogy is false,” he said. “I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and it sends the wrong message to our enemy.”

Video: Betting the presidency? While Bush opened with remarks about Iraq, the questions were broader — focusing as well on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush sidestepped at least two opportunities to say he wanted to apologize or take personal responsibility.

“Had I had any inkling whatsoever that people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to protect the country. Just like we’re working to prevent further attacks,” he said.

Asked whether he felt any responsibility for the attack, Bush said he grieved for the families of the victims and said in retrospect he wished, for example, the Homeland Security Department had been in place.

Bush did not say so, but even after the attack, he initially opposed creation of the agency. He changed his mind under prodding from lawmakers.

The president also said a highly publicized intelligence briefing he received on Aug. 6, 2001, contained “nothing new” in terms of disclosing that Osama bin Laden hoped to attack the United States. He was heartened, he said, by the disclosure that the FBI was conducting numerous investigations.

But that claim was undercut earlier in the day at a televised hearing by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks.

Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard testified he didn’t know where the material came from, and one commission member, Rep. Slade Gorton, suggested that many of the investigations related to fund raising, not the threat of attacks.

Bush said he would investigate the matter.

While Bush said American troops will remain in Iraq, he also said the United States would formally recognize the new Iraqi government once the June 30 transfer of power was completed and appoint an ambassador and open an embassy.

He also said he would send Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the Middle East to discuss issues of “mutual interest” with nations there.

Earlier Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said in Tokyo that the administration soon would announce its choice as U.S. ambassador to the new Iraqi government. Paul Bremer has been the chief American civilian official in Baghdad, running the provisional authority there.

It was Bush’s first prime-time news conference since March 6, 2003, just days before the opening of the war to depose Saddam. Bush’s only other evening news conference was on Oct. 11, 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks.

In the hours leading up to Bush’s appearance, the national commission investigating Sept. 11 held a televised hearing and issued a report that said a more alert FBI and CIA working together might have uncovered the terrorists’ plot. The report detailed an agonizing series of missed opportunities, half-measures and bureaucratic inertia.

Commissioner Thomas H. Kean called it “an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time.”

The Associated Press, Reuters and MSNBC.com's Michael E. Ross contributed to this report.

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