WASHINGTON – President Bush vowed Tuesday night to continue the war in Iraq regardless of the commitment in troops, additional resources needed or plummeting popularity polls at home.
"Now's the time to talk about the war on terror. Now's the time to make sure the American people understand the stakes," Bush said in an hour-long, prime-time news conference. "We will stay the course and complete the job."
Bush said three groups — Saddam Hussein backers, insurgents, including those backed by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), and foreign terrorists — are seeking to drive out the U.S.-led coalition. He warned that al-Sadr "must answer the charges against him and disband his illegal militia," which has been responsible for much of the violence as well as recent kidnappings of foreign workers in Iraq.
"They want to run us out of Iraq and destroy the democratic hopes of the Iraqi people. The violence we have seen is a power grab ... it's not a civil war, it's not a popular uprising. Most of Iraq is relatively stable," he said.
The president opened the news conference with a 17-minute statement on Iraq in which he reminded the country that the goal is a democratic Iraq where terrorists cannot breed. He also repeated his commitment to transfer sovereignty to Iraqi civilians on June 30.
"Were the coalition to step back from the June 30th pledge, many Iraqis would question our intentions and feel their hopes betrayed. And those in Iraq who trade in hatred and conspiracy theories would find a larger audience and gain a stronger hand. We will not step back from our pledge. On June 30th, Iraqi sovereignty (search) will be placed in Iraqi hands," he said.
In his third family-hour solo press briefing since he took office in the White House, Bush took questions from reporters who filled the East Room. The first query of the president asked him to respond to complaints that Iraq is looking more and more like Vietnam, a comparison that Bush rejected.
Asked about his willingness to commit troops and the length of time they will be serving, Bush said they will be there for as long as it takes "and not one day more." But he also said that if Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, were to request more troops, he would get them.
"I'm constantly asking him does he have what he needs, whether it be in troop strength or in equipment ... And if he makes the recommendation, he'll get it," he said.
Bush tried to express sympathy with families who have lost relatives fighting in Iraq, and asked that they be patient. He stressed that it is the United States' obligation as "the most powerful nation" in the world to lead the rest of the globe toward peace and freedom.
"Freedom is the deepest need of every human soul," he said.
Bush said that even without finding any weapons of mass destruction yet, he is glad that he urged the world to get rid of Saddam. Bush said that Saddam posed a threat regardless of whether he had, or had the capability to produce, weapons.
"He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. He was a threat because he coddled terrorists. He was a threat because he funded suiciders. He was a threat to the region. He was a threat to the United States," he said.
The president, however, was unable to come up with an answer to a question asking him to list any mistakes he thinks he may have made along the way.
"I don't want to sound like I made no mistakes. I am confident I have ... maybe I am not quick on my feet in coming up and finding one," he said.
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
While most of the news conference focused on Iraq, the president also was asked to defend his administration's inability to stop the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Bush said he regretted that the United States was not on a war footing since the enemy obviously was. He added that with hindsight, it's easy to come up with ideas on how the nation could have been better prepared, for example, by having had a Department of Homeland Security.
"The lessons from 9/11, one lesson: We must deal with gathering threats, and that's part of the reason I dealt with Iraq the way I did. The other lesson is this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense," he said.
Bush also said that he has thought over and over again about what he could have done to prevent the attack, but none of the information he had, including a pre-Sept. 11 memo that warned of threats from Al Qaeda (search), dealt with specific information or upcoming threats.
The president did not take issue with the FBI, which was responsible for domestic criminal investigations at the time of the attacks and told Bush in the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing that 70 full field investigations of potential terrorist activities were under way at the time. On Tuesday, former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard told the panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the number of investigations may have been overstated.
Bush declined to apologize for the government's failure to prevent the attacks, and said no one is to blame but Usama bin Laden and his terror network. He also explained a comment he made earlier in which he said he didn't feel a sense of urgency before Sept. 11. He said he was referring to the urgency to kill bin Laden, and acknowledged that he didn't have the great outrage about the Al Qaeda leader that he felt after the attacks.
While the commission hearings have shown several failures in the intelligence and law enforcement agencies before the attacks, Bush suggested on Monday that now "may be a time to revamp and reform our intelligence services. Neither Bush nor his aides specifically indicated any concrete plans.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan explained that revamping and reforming of the intelligence apparatus referred mainly to changes that have already been made, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (search), enactment of the Patriot Act (search) and joint briefings with the directors of the CIA and FBI.
Despite the fact that Bush has spoken positively about the work of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search), his aides say the public hearings have been mostly a partisan exercise. They say the best work is being done behind the scenes by the staffers, and that's whom they hope will guide the commission's recommendations. The commission is supposed to wrap up its investigation in July.
Bush, who has been mostly upbeat about Iraq despite a heavy week of American casualties, took a serious posture on Tuesday night as he described why it is important to continue the mission, even at the cost of more lives. So far this month, U.S. troops have killed about 700 insurgents across Iraq while about 70 coalition troops — almost all Americans — have died in clashes.
"Iraq is a part of the war on terror. It is not the war on terror; it is a theater in the war on terror. And it's essential we win this battle in the war on terror. By winning this battle, it will make other victories more certain in the war against the terrorists," he said.
Asked about the drop in support for the mission, Bush said he would not be swayed by frequently shifting popular opinion.
"As to whether or not I made decisions based upon polls, I don't. I just don't make decisions that way," he said, adding that perhaps he needed to communicate his point more clearly. "If I tried to fine-tune my message based on polls, I think I would be pretty ineffective. I know I would be disappointed in myself."
He added that regardless of his future, though he plans to be in the White House next year, he fears that it is incumbent upon him to "leave behind a better foundation for presidents to deal with the threats we face."
Bush Takes On-Camera Offensive
With the Sept. 11 commission hearings and the recent battles in Iraq being broadcast into American homes, this is a good time for Bush to defend his policies, said Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution (search).
"This is an administration that gets in trouble because it doesn't speak up in a timely way and defend itself," Hess said.
Weekly Standard Editor Fred Barnes told Fox News that Bush, whom he suggested called the news conference to "get off defense," stayed remarkably on-topic — his commitment to finishing the business of developing a democratic Iraq — while he answered questions from 15 reporters.
"No matter what the question was, he wound up with that," Barnes said. "George Bush has a reputation for staying on message. He was heroically staying on message.
"I think he was emphatic and he was repeatedly emphatic," he said.
"I think he failed to answer the key question that I had," which was why the U.S. went to Iraq, said Fox News contributor and Democratic consultant Susan Estrich.
Tuesday's question-and-answer session is the 12th solo news conference Bush has held during his term in office, and the first of this year. However, he frequently holds joint press availabilities before and after meetings with his Cabinet, congressional and foreign leaders.
Still, by this point in their respective presidencies, the president's father, George H.W. Bush, had held 75 solo news conferences, Jimmy Carter had held 55, Bill Clinton had convened 40, Richard Nixon had held 25 and Ronald Reagan had conducted 22. Reagan and Nixon have held the most press conferences during prime time.
Fox News' Wendell Goler, James Rosen, Sharon Kehnemui and The Associated Press contributed to this report.