WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) promised Wednesday to "stay on the offense" in Iraq to prevent insurgents from disrupting next week's referendum on a new constitution.
His spokesman welcomed Iraq's decision to back away from last-minute election rule changes that the United Nations said were unfair.
"We fully understand they intend to disrupt the constitutional process, or will try to do so, as well as stop the progress of democracy," Bush said of the insurgents after a briefing at the White House from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) and other Pentagon officials.
"The Iraqis are showing more and more capability of taking the fight to the enemy," the president told reporters. "As they become more capable, we will be able to bring folks home."
Senate Democrats assailed the administration's strategy in Iraq and prodded the president to change it. "We will not accept staying the course," said Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) of Nevada.
In a letter to Bush, Senate Democrats said that continuing along the same path in Iraq "could lead to a full blown civil war." They asked the president to answer specific questions about the U.S. strategy, including specifically how strong Iraqi forces must be before an American withdrawal can begin.
"He has to tell the American people what the plan is," said Sen. Joseph Biden (search), D-Del.
Democrats also cried foul over the cancellation of a briefing on Iraq that was to be given by National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte (search).
Bush later visited wounded troops at the Army's Walter Reed hospital, which has received over 4,450 patients injured in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. He visited with 29 troops and presented eight Purple Hearts.
He said that every time he comes to the hospital, slated to close under a federal plan, he marvels at the courage of soldier patients.
"I asked for God's blessing on them and their families as they recover," Bush said.
There are nearly 140,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq
Referring to the Oct. 15 vote in Iraq, Bush said, "The constitution has been written. Folks will have a chance to vote it up or down."
Mentioning what he said were expected efforts by insurgents to disrupt the voting, Bush said, "Part of the way the Pentagon and the folks on the ground are going to deal with it is to stay on the offense, and that's what's taking place."
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Scott McClellan (search) welcomed the decision by the Iraqi government to abandon a rules change by Iraq's Shiite- and Kurd-dominated parliament that would have made it difficult for the proposed constitution to fail.
Minority Sunni Arabs, who oppose the document, strongly criticized the attempt to change the rules.
Iraq's parliament voted Wednesday to reverse the changes after United Nations officials said the changes undermined the integrity of the Oct. 15 referendum.
The decision to withdraw the changes "was an Iraqi decision," McClellan said.
"What we've always said is they should take steps that are consistent with international standards ... and they should encourage broader political participation," McClellan. The vote to withdraw the changes accomplished that, he said.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack indicated that U.S. officials shared the U.N. concern that a rules change could have violated international voting standards. He offered understated praise for the most recent change.
"It is the role of friends to speak out and offer their counsel when various actions might not meet international standards in terms of political process or the electoral process," McCormack said.
U.S. diplomats in Baghdad discussed the proposed change with the Iraqi government, but McCormack said he had no information about the role of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad was heavily involved in negotiating the proposed constitution.