CARLISLE, Pa. — President Bush, seeking to convince skeptical Americans that he has a plan to bring stability to Iraq, outlined a five-step program calculated to articulate his objective of a sovereign Iraqi government, and to begin to reverse the damaging fallout over U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
In a prime-time speech Monday night, delivered at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Bush said the United States will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government by the long-established June 30 deadline; help establish the security in Iraq that democracy requires; continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure; encourage more international support; and move toward national elections that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people.
He said the first of those elections would be held “no later” than January 2005.
Bush announced no major policy initiatives nor offered a firm date for the 138,000 U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq. In the speech, he announced plans to maintain that troop strength “for as long as necessary.” And alluding to the increase in violence in recent weeks, Bush said that the troop level could increase. “If they need more troops, I will send them,” Bush pledged.
‘Difficult days ahead’
With nearly 800 U.S. soldiers killed so far in Iraq, Bush warned that the violence would continue.
“There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic,” the president said.
“Completing the five steps to Iraqi elected self-government will not be easy,” Bush said. “There is likely to be violence before the transfer of sovereignty and after the transfer of sovereignty.”
He talked of the assassination this month of the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Izzadine Saleem, and the beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg. But he continued to express his resolve, saying, “No power of the enemy will stop Iraq’s progress.”
“The terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq,” the president said.
‘We will persevere’
“Our coalition has a clear goal, understood by all: To see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations. America's task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend — a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf. And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done.”
Video: “We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty,” Bush said.
The White House said Monday afternoon that the the U.S. detention facility at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad would be destroyed in consultation with the new interim Iraqi government.
On Monday night Bush said the prison would be dismantled “as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning.”
Earlier Monday, defense officials told NBC News that the prison’s commander, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, had been suspended from command of the 800th Military Police Brigade.
And within minutes after the speech, NBC News learned from officials that Gen. Richard Sanchez will be replaced as the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq with the turnover of political sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government.
Difficult time for president
Bush had practiced the address in the White House theater, and was using a coating of makeup to cover scratches on his face from a mountain biking accident Saturday at his Texas ranch.
Bush visited the war college at a time when he is mired in the worst job approval ratings of his presidency, and facing the possibility of defeat in the Nov. 2 election.
A new CBS News poll said 41 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Bush was doing as president, while 52 percent disapproved. Two weeks ago in the same poll, 44 percent approved. A year ago, two-thirds did.
An ABC-Washington Post poll found that 40 percent approve, while 58 percent disapprove. Independents disapprove of Bush’s handling of Iraq by a 2-1 margin.
About six in 10 of Americans in both polls and the National Annenberg Election Survey said the Bush administration lacks a clear plan for Iraq.
No recent president has been re-elected with such numbers this close to the November elections, but a Gallup Poll gave Harry S Truman, who ascended to the office from the vice presidency, a 39 percent approval rating in June 1948, and he went on to squeak out a victory over Thomas Dewey.
Bush aides said much of the U.S. message has been drowned out in recent weeks by images of Iraqi prisoner abuse. The scandal has triggered criminal investigations and congressional hearings and cast a shadow over the U.S. occupation after a war fought over weapons of mass destruction that have never been found.
‘End of the occupation’
Administration officials said Bush’s speech, the first in a series leading up to June 30, would seek to inform Americans that the U.N. envoy in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, had set up the structure of an interim Iraqi government to take over from the U.S.-led coalition, complete with a president, a prime minister, two vice presidents and 26 government ministers.
The goal is for the caretaker government to hold power until elections for a transitional government are staged in January, followed by the writing of an Iraqi constitution and elections for a permanent government later in 2005.
“Our basic point is that this is the real end of the occupation and this is a transfer of sovereignty as the Iraqis wanted. It shows we are standing by our word,” a senior State Department official told Reuters.
The United States and Britain were circulating a new U.N. resolution that would endorse sovereignty for a caretaker government.
The draft text would not give a definite timetable for a mandate to end for a U.S.-led multinational force and instead would call for a review after a year, which a new Iraqi government could request earlier.
Bush, who initially shunned the United Nations, is now relying heavily on it to set up the caretaker government, and he expects Brahimi to name the country’s interim leaders within the month.
Lawmakers want details
While some lawmakers advocated an increase in the U.S. military presence in Iraq to smooth the transition, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said he wanted to see a military transfer come soon.
“It’s time to put some weight on the shoulders of the Iraqi military,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Sunday in NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, chided the president for failing to offer concrete plans earlier. He said he wanted to hear Monday night “precisely what is going to happen ... as opposed to a generalization.”
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a Vietnam veteran and a leading voice on foreign affairs, said on CNN that “part of the problem ... that we have here, after more than a year in Iraq, is a credibility and trust issue.”
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former chief of U.S. Central Command, concurred and accused senior defense officials of failure in executing the Iraq war. Appearing Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Zinni said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top aides should resign.
NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.