WASHINGTON – Despite two days of audacious, deadly attacks, President Bush (search) insisted Monday that the United States is making progress in Iraq and said American successes are actually spurring the violence by making insurgents more desperate.
But defense officials said the synchronized homicide bombings also suggested a new level of coordination by attackers, and Democrats scoffed at the president's argument, leveling some of their sharpest criticism yet.
"Does the president really believe that suicide bombers are willing to strap explosives to their bodies because we're restoring electricity and creating jobs for Iraqis?" said Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., a White House candidate. "Is the president arguing that the better things get in Iraq, the more dangerous it will become for American soldiers?"
The quadruple attacks in Baghdad on Monday, killing nearly 40 people and injuring more than 200, complicated the White House effort to paint Iraq as a country where life is returning to normal. The bombings plunged parts of the capital into chaos, leaving scenes of broken, bloody bodies and twisted, burning automobiles.
Since Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq six months ago, 113 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire, and about 1,675 have been injured in hostilities. American forces sustain an average of 26 attacks a day.
The president, meeting with U.S. Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) in the Oval Office to discuss the security situation, pledged to hunt down the "cold-blooded killers, terrorists" who are conducting the attacks. He expressed particular dismay that the homicide bombing attacks targeted Red Cross (search) aid workers and police officers.
"They don't care who they kill. They just want to kill," Bush told reporters.
Also attending the White House meeting were the military commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search); Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers; and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"The more progress we make on the ground, the more free the Iraqis become, the more electricity is available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become," Bush said.
"They can't stand the thought of a free society. They hate freedom. They love terror. They love to try to create fear and chaos," Bush said.
Bremer added that "a lot of wonderful things have happened" in Iraq: The country has a functioning Cabinet, all schools and hospitals are open and electricity has returned to prewar levels.
"We'll have rough days, such as we've had the last couple of days," Bremer said. "But the overall thrust is in the right direction."
But Democratic presidential candidates said the surge in violence only bolstered their contention that postwar Iraq is a mess.
"I just don't understand the president's logic -- that because there is more violence and more deaths, things are going well. In my book, that means things are worse," said Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean.
Said Kerry, a Vietnam War (search) veteran: "This sounds frighteningly like the 'light at the end of the tunnel' rhetoric of Vietnam. Every day, the White House's excuses become more insulting to our troops on the ground."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said in New Hampshire that he was "startled" by Bush's words. "With all respect, it makes no sense: This is a tragedy that occurred today, and it's amid growing signs of dangerous disorder in Iraq."
The bombings came hours after clashes around Baghdad killed three U.S. soldiers overnight, and a day after insurgents hit a hotel full of U.S. occupation officials with rockets, killing a U.S. lieutenant colonel and wounding 18 other people. The Pentagon identified the officer as Army Lt. Col. Charles H. Buehring, 40, of Fayetteville, N.C.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also was in the hotel, but was not hurt.
Bush sidestepped questions about who is behind the attacks.
Pentagon officials said they believed loyalists of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were responsible for the bombings. Top Iraqi and U.S. officers blamed "foreign fighters" for the day's mayhem. White House spokesman Scott McClellan pointed to a third class of possible culprits: the criminals Saddam released from Iraqi prisons as he was losing his grip on power.