June 29, 2005

Bush Declares Sacrifice in Iraq to Be 'Worth It'


FORT BRAGG, N.C., June 28 - President Bush, facing a growing restiveness around the country and in his own party over the constant stream of casualties in Iraq, declared Tuesday night that the daily sacrifice of American lives in Iraq "is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country."

In an address to the nation from this Army base, in front of an audience of 750 members of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army's Special Operations unit based here, Mr. Bush spoke in uncharacteristically somber tones of the need for staying power in what has become a long conflict in Iraq. He gave no timetables for American withdrawal other than an assurance that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

While offering no new strategies in a war that has now stretched for 25 months, with no diminishing of attacks on American forces, he explained that he would not send more troops to face the insurgency in Iraq, unless asked to by commanders there, because it would "undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight."

But with the Iraqis slow to take up that role, Mr. Bush's task on Tuesday night, his aides acknowledged, was to bridge a widening gap between the daily news of American and Iraqi casualties and his periodic declarations that the United States is winning.

The Department of Defense has identified more than 1,730 casualties among American military personnel.

"Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed," the president said here, at a base that has already lost 89 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has nearly 10,000 of its soldiers still in Iraq. "Every picture is horrifying - and the suffering is real. Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it?"

He quickly answered his own question in the affirmative, once again melding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the enemies Americans now find themselves facing in Iraq. He mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks five times, and argued that to back away in Iraq now would be to risk allowing the terrorists to turn "Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven."

Mr. Bush sidestepped arguments about whether his rationale for entering the war was flawed, or based on faulty evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he made no reference to recently disclosed British government memorandums that show his major ally in the war harbored deep doubts about whether the White House had thought through the risks of the post-invasion period.

"The past is the past," the president's communications director, Dan Bartlett, said in an interview here before the speech. "The president is addressing the question of what we are doing now, and we can all agree that we must finish the job."

Standing before a blue background adorned with insignia of the units deployed from the base here, Mr. Bush argued that if America were to give up on the war now, "we yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden."

In a rare, direct reference to Osama bin Laden's periodic menacing messages, he quoted the Qaeda leader as declaring that "this third world war" is now raging in Iraq and that it will end in "victory and glory or misery and humiliation." After some initial reluctance, all three major networks broadcast the speech, which the White House scheduled to mark the first anniversary of the end of the formal occupation of Iraq, and the official transfer of authority to an interim Iraqi government that has struggled to exercise its authority. Network officials said they were initially hesitant to broadcast the speech in part because of Mr. Bush's decision to hold it here, in front of soldiers selected by their commanders, a setting that could give the event the appearance of a rally.

They need not have worried. Rather than interrupt the president with applause, the soldiers sat silently in green uniforms and maroon berets, until Mr. Bush, well into his speech, declared, "We will stay in the fight until the fight is won." Then they clapped, the only applause he received until the end of his address.

The president has chosen other venues outside Washington for other major speeches, including his May 2003 speech aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare that the Iraqi leader had been ousted and that "major combat operations" were over.

That speech, noted for the banner behind the president that read "Mission Accomplished," has been seized upon by his critics as evidence that the White House entered the war without thinking sufficiently about the high cost, in money and blood, of the post-invasion period. On that evening on the carrier off San Diego, Mr. Bush was almost ebullient, declaring, "We have seen the turning of the tide."

But Tuesday evening's speech, two years and a month later, was very different - a call for stoicism and endurance, during what Mr. Bush termed, for the second time in a week, "a time of testing" for the nation. He compared it to the days of darkness during the middle of the Civil War. Yet he appeared at the end of his 28-minute speech to be describing how he hoped his presidency would be remembered

"When the history of this period is written," he said, "the liberation of Afghanistan and the liberation of Iraq will be remembered as great turning points in the story of freedom."

The heart of Mr. Bush's argument on Tuesday was that the tortuously slow effort to train an Iraqi forces was finally taking hold.

"Today, Iraq has more than 160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions," he said, repeating a number than many American officials have used in recent months to bolster their argument that the American strategy is beginning to show results.

But the figure includes troops with only minimal training. When asked to break it down during recent Congressional hearings, American officials declined to do so in open sessions, saying the numbers had to remain classified so insurgents would not know the strengths and weakness of the forces opposing them.

Mr. Bush appeared to acknowledge this vulnerability when he said, "We have a lot more work to do," noting that while some Iraqi forces "are capable of taking on the terrorists and insurgents by themselves" a larger number need help or are "not yet ready."

He gave no time estimate of how long the training would take. Nor did he discuss the state of the insurgency, which Vice President Dick Cheney said recently was in its "last throes," though the top American military commander in the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, offered a more pessimistic assessment in testimony before Congress last week.

Such predictions have led to fractures in Mr. Bush's Republican Party that appear to be part of the reason that polls show a marked decline in confidence in the president and his strategy.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, suggested recently that the White House had departed from reality with its optimistic assessments of Iraq, and said outright that Americans were losing to the insurgents. That brought a sharp rebuke from Mr. Cheney. While his speech on the Lincoln two years ago made little mention of foreign help, on Tuesday evening Mr. Bush mentioned NATO members and other nations, saying they were playing crucial roles.

While his previous speeches have overtly compared the reconstruction of Iraq to the rebuilding of Japan and Germany after World War II, he acknowledged Tuesday that Iraq was a different case. "Rebuilding a country after three decades of tyranny is hard, and rebuilding while at war is even harder," he said.