WASHINGTON – On the first anniversary of the transfer of power from coalition to Iraqi authorities, President Bush outlined his strategy to win the conflict that has cost the lives of more than 1,740 U.S. troops.
He also reminded Americans why U.S. troops were in Iraq.
"The terrorists who attacked us — and the terrorists we face — murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent," the president said.
"Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression — by toppling governments, driving us out of the region, and exporting terror," Bush told troops at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, home of the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division (search).
"Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war. Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania," he continued.
"There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home," he said.
Criticism of the administration's Iraq policy has been mounting in Congress, with lawmakers in both parties pointing to a drop in public opinion and some Democrats making comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam by calling it a "quagmire."
In his speech, Bush acknowledged that "progress has been uneven. But progress is being made."
"The terrorists — both foreign and Iraqi — failed to stop the transfer of sovereignty," he said. "They failed to break our coalition and force a mass withdrawal by our allies. They failed to incite an Iraqi civil war. They failed to prevent free elections. They failed to stop the formation of a democratic Iraqi government that represents all of Iraq’s diverse population. And they failed to stop Iraqis from signing up in large numbers with the police forces and the army to defend their new democracy."
Leading Democrats faulted the president for what they described as a lack of detail in what he intended to do to win the peace and bring American service members home.
"The president missed an opportunity tonight for straight talk to the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search), D-Calif., said in a statement.
Rep. Richard Wexler (search), D-Fla., said Bush "espoused empty rhetoric about Iraq in an attempt to allay American fears ... [and] failed to address the most significant problems surrounding this ill-conceived, poorly planned and falsely-justified war."
A Multi-Step, Coordinated Process
Bush quoted Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden's declaration that Iraq was the central front in the War on Terror, and restated the mission several times — to hunt down terrorists while helping Iraqis build a free nation that would lay the groundwork for peace in the Middle East.
Bush said several goals had been reached:
— Sovereignty had been restored to Iraqis;
— Eight million Iraqis voted in elections to establish an interim government;
— The infrastructure, including roads, schools and health clinics as well as sanitation, electricity and water facilities, was being rebuilt;
— More than 160,000 security forces had been trained and equipped.
The president acknowledged that not all Iraqi security forces could plan and execute anti-terrorist operations, but contended they were building up as quickly as possible.
"As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said.
The president also gave credit to the international community for its support. Forty countries and three international organizations had pledged $34 billion in assistance for Iraqi reconstruction, Bush said.
Meanwhile, 30 nations had troops in Iraq and others were contributing non-military assistance; the United Nations was helping Iraqis write a constitution for the next elections; and donor countries were to meet in Jordan next month to pledge support toward Iraqi reconstruction, following a similar summit in Brussels last week.
Bush said hundreds of foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and other nations had been killed or captured. More than 2,000 Iraqi security forces had died in the effort.
The president also discussed three new steps he said were being taken by U.S. troops:
— Partnering coalition units with Iraqi units to conduct field operations together;
— Embedding coalition "transition teams" inside Iraqi units to provide battlefield advice and assistance during combat operations, and also teach urban combat, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance techniques;
— Working with the Iraqi ministries of Interior and Defense to improve their capabilities and develop command and control structures as well as civilian and military leadership training.
Bush added that NATO was establishing a military academy near Baghdad to train the next generation of Iraqi military leaders.
Bush said all those steps would allow Iraqis to vote for a new government and "bind their multiethnic society together in a democracy that respects the will of the majority and protects minority rights."
Praise for the U.S. Military
During his remarks, Bush thanked the troops, who were warned not to hoop and holler during the address, telling them they had "contributed mightily" to create a free, democratic and safe Iraq.
"To the soldiers in this hall, and our servicemen and women across the globe: I thank you for your courage under fire and your service to our nation. I thank our military families — the burden of war falls especially hard on you," Bush said.
Earlier in the day, Bush set aside nearly three hours to meet families of soldiers who had died, as he usually does when he visits military bases. Outside the base, opponents of the war protested.
"There's a groundswell against this war,'" said Bill Dobbs, spokesman United for Peace and Justice (search), an anti-war coalition of more than 1,300 local and national groups. "You can see it in Congress, you can see it in newspaper editorials and what young people are saying to military recruiters: 'No.'"
The Bush administration is fighting public displeasure with the war effort. A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed doubts about the war have reached a high point, with more than half of those surveyed saying invading Iraq was a mistake.
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken earlier this month found that Iraq was by far the issue Americans considered the most important for the federal government to address. In the poll, 25 percent cited Iraq and Saddam Hussein as the top issue; the No. 2 issue was the economy, with 13 percent listing it as the most important.
In the second poll, Bush had the approval of 48 percent of Americans, while 43 percent disapproved of his job performance.
Several lawmakers stated before the president's speech that they wanted to hear about concrete steps to secure Iraq so that U.S. soldiers and sailors could plan to leave. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as some Republicans, have urged the president to lay out a timetable for withdrawal.
Bush said he recognized that Americans want the troops to come home.
"Some contend that we should set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces," he said. "Let me explain why that would be a serious mistake. Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis — who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done.
"It would send the wrong message to our troops — who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve," he continued. "And it would send the wrong message to the enemy — who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out. We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed — and not a day longer."
Bush also explained why he did not want to change troop levels unless commanders asked for it.
"Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight," he said. "And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever — when we are in fact working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave."
Bush's speech is part of a White House public-relations campaign to calm public anxieties about the war. It came after several conflicting, sometimes perplexing, messages about the nature and duration of the conflict.
Vice President Dick Cheney last month asserted that the insurgency in Iraq was "in its last throes."
He was later contradicted by the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, who told a Congressional panel that the insurgency had not weakened, and by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said on "FOX News Sunday" that the war could drag on for another decade.
Rumsfeld also told an interviewer this month that Iraq was "statistically" no safer for its citizens today than it was before the ouster of Saddam Hussein, although he maintained progress was being made.
As part of the PR campaign, Bush encouraged Americans to show their support for the military by flying the flag on the Fourth of July, sending letters to military members and helping military families.
He also announced a new Department of Defense Web site: AmericaSupportsYou.mil.
Bush urged young people who might be interested in a military career to look into enlisting. The Defense Department has said it expects a shortfall in enlistments for the first time in six years.
"There is no higher calling than service in our Armed Forces," Bush said. "We live in freedom because every generation has produced patriots willing to serve a cause greater than themselves."
"Those who serve today are taking their rightful place among the greatest generations that have worn our nation's uniform," he added. "When the history of this period is written, the liberation of Afghanistan and the liberation of Iraq will be remembered as great turning points in the story of freedom."
Swift Reaction to the Speech
Immediately after the speech, Sen. Chuck Schumer (search), D-N.Y., said that Americans know a strong fight in the War on Terror was necessary but that they also needed to see a "light at the end of the tunnel."
“People want to know what the end game is, how the insurgency can be quelled, and when an Iraqi security force will be trained to take care of its own security needs," said Schumer. "This administration still has a long way to go in laying out the details of a plan to enable the Iraqis to defend their own democracy and secure victory in Iraq."
Former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (search) commented that the president recited some points that needed to be said, but left several questions unresolved.
"For example, he didn't really come to grips with the dichotomy between what Vice President Cheney said — that the insurgency is in its last throes — and what Secretary Rumsfeld warned — that this could last five to 12 more years. And he admitted progress is uneven," Clark told FOX News.
"He didn't really explain why car bombings have gone up, despite our effective operations, or why the insurgents are coming in increasing numbers, or why the insurgency is still the same strength," Clark continued. "These are all the elements that create doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the American public."
Sen. John Warner (search), R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told FOX News that he was very proud of the president's speech.
"He spoke with confidence and an unwavering resolve to stay the course and to achieve the goals on which we've set out," Warner said, adding that it was essential for Iraqis to stay on a timeline in developing a constitution and holding elections.
FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.