WASHINGTON – A return to terror in Iraq would embolden America's enemies, President Bush said, but a free and democratic Arab country will help demoralize and dismantle terrorist groups.
Calling the actions of America's enemies "brutal," the president warned Monday night that violence and death will continue as Iraq moves to independence and freedom, but it will not succeed in deterring the coalition's goals in Iraq.
"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," the president said during a speech at the Army War College (search) in Carlisle, Pa.
"We have no interest in occupation, and full sovereignty will give Iraqis a direct interest in their own government," he said.
Five months before the U.S. presidential election, and just five weeks before the June 30 hand-off of political power, Bush laid out a blueprint for creating a democratic nation out of Iraq. In the first of what are expected to be weekly speeches until that date, Bush also sought to remind Americans who may have forgotten that a greater goal is at stake in Iraq.
"The rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology and give momentum to reformers across the region," Bush said. "No power of the enemy will stop Iraq's progress ... the terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq."
Bush, who took a more somber tone in his speech than he usually does, was laying out a five-point plan toward a free and democratic Iraq:
— hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government,
— help establish security,
— continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure,
— encourage more international support and
— move toward a national election "that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."
The president did not present a timetable for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, and even repeated his warnings that if commanders on the ground in Iraq request more troops, he will send them. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday afternoon that even after the transfer of sovereignty on June 30, U.S. troops would still be under American command.
In his speech, Bush listed several achievements that have already been made in helping Iraq rebuild and reconstruct, including the training of an Iraqi army that will be 260,000-strong. He said several nations have relieved Iraq's debt to them, many town councils and elected city governments are operating, a new currency is being traded and Iraq is producing 2 million barrels of oil each day that has brought in $6 billion so far this year.
Bush said the new unelected, interim Iraqi government will guide the country until elections can be held by Jan. 31, 2005. When the government is put in place, the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, will pack up and go home and the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte (search), will begin the embassy's mission as a conduit to help relations between the two countries.
The president also lauded the work of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (search), who is hand-picking an Iraqi prime minister, president and two vice presidents to work with a cabinet of 26 ministers in running day-to-day operations until elections can be held. Bush said that U.S. officials "will continue to provide technical experts to help Iraq's ministries, but these ministries will report to Iraq's new prime minister."
Bush said a lot has been done to settle the unrest in parts of Iraq and praised Iraqis for taking more responsibility for restoring order and working to eject militia forces of Moqtada al-Sadr (search) from Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. U.S. military officials said Monday that they know where the Shiite cleric is, but are choosing not to take him in just yet to avoid making a martyr of him.
Bush said that the stray cleric is being handled appropriately, but his followers or other insurgents should not underestimate U.S. willingness to use military might if necessary.
"We will do all that is necessary by measured force or overwhelming force to achieve a stable Iraq," he said.
At the same time that the amount of force is being considered, the president gave relief to prisoners. He said that the United States will demolish Abu Ghraib prison (search) and build a new and modern detention facility to provide humane conditions to criminals.
Bush also announced the intention to get a new U.N. resolution that will endorse the timetable for the handover of sovereignty and express international support for Iraq's interim government. The president is also looking for other nations to join the effort to secure Iraq's future.
"Despite past disagreements, most nations have indicated strong support for the success of a free Iraq, and I am confident they will share in the responsibility of assuring that success," Bush said, adding that a United Nations (search) team has already started working on forming an independent election commission in Iraq that will oversee national elections and the creation of a new constitution that will be voted on by Iraqis next fall.
The president reviewed drafts of his speech over the weekend while traveling to Texas and Connecticut to attend parties celebrating his daughters' college graduations. After a final Monday afternoon run-through, the president's speech ended up lasting 32 minutes. He received several rounds of applause and at the end, a standing ovation from the audience of primarily military members.
But the president still has a number of critics at home. Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday that the president must get NATO, other major powers and the Security Council to support the new acting government, provide security and find a peacemaker for the "inevitable disputes" that will take place between Iraqi demographic groups.
"This may be the president's most important speech to date. I believe history will look back on the plan he announces and judge it as one of the most decisive moments in the history of modern Iraq," Biden, D-Del., said in a statement before the speech.
"The president laid out general principles tonight, most of which we've heard before. What's most important now is to turn these words into action by offering presidential leadership to the nation and to the world. That's going to require the president to genuinely reach out to our allies so the United States doesn't have to continue to go it alone and to create the stability necessary to allow the people of Iraq to move forward," said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
But Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the president had done a great job laying out a vision that the country can get behind. He also admonished Republicans who have been backsliding in their support for the president.
"This is important enough for Americans to die for, it's important enough for us to stick together as a party and support our commander-in-chief," King told Fox News. "Any Republican who was not won over really wasn't listening or didn't want to listen."
Now is a pivotal time in Iraq and the direction it heads may determine the president's re-election. Bush's approval ratings have sunk, according to some polls, to the lowest point of his presidency. Skepticism, mixed with fear of moving down an untraveled path in Iraq, has been rising among Iraqis and Americans.
But at least one analyst said that Bush's performance and his plan may give some perspective for perspiring observers.
"One of the very important messages that he was trying to send to American voters was patience and perseverance. You heard him warn: 'There will be more chaos, there will be more violence, stick with me, stick with this,'" said Washington Post national correspondent Ceci Connelly.
"I thought the president really did lay out his plan very well, and I think those critics who said he didn't have a plan knew he had one, they just didn't like that plan," said Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. But Barnes said Bush needs to do more to answer the security questions.
The setbacks in Iraq stacked up in the last week or so with deadly clashes with insurgents; reports of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison; the assassination of the Iraqi Governing Council's rotating president; a homicide bomber who wounded the deputy interior minister in charge of security; and congressional demands for an investigation into allegations that Ahmad Chalabi, once the darling of Pentagon officials, gave Iran sensitive information about U.S. activities in Iraq.
Nearly 800 American servicemen and -women have died since the beginning of military operations last year.
Barnes said he thought Fallujah was being left untouched, to what could be a dangerous outcome, but syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer said the president has done a lot to describe how to secure Fallujah.
"Iraqis are going to have to do it for themselves," he said. "Ultimately, the answer is it's not going to be Americans dying in large numbers in Fallujah and elsewhere suppressing the Sunni resistance, it's going to have to be Iraqis, and I think that was his message.
"It's not withdrawal, it's not cutting and running, it's a slow transfer of authority and power and the military weapon to Iraqis. Otherwise it's going to be an American war and he's essentially saying in his speech, 'We want to end this as an American war, it should end up being an Iraqi struggle,'" Krauthammer said.
Bush acknowledged several tragedies that are related to the war in Iraq and overall War on Terror, including the beheading of Philadelphia businessman Nick Berg (search) and bombings in Spain, Turkey, Bali and Tunisia. He also said the United States has been confronted with terrible challenges — the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, the military engagement in Afghanistan and the fight against ricin and dirty bombs.
But he said efforts by terrorists to shock, frighten and demoralize free people will be met with a competing vision — liberty.
"We believe that when all Middle Eastern peoples are finally allowed to live and think and work and worship as free men and women, they will reclaim the greatness of their own heritage. And when that day comes, the bitterness and burning hatreds that feed terrorism will fade and die away," the president said.