WASHINGTON – In his final push before elections in Iraq, President Bush on Wednesday touted this week's election as a milestone for the Iraqi people and described how 2005 has been a historic year for the Middle East.
He also took responsibility for faulty intelligence that led to the decision to invade Iraq.
"It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As president I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq, and I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we're doing just that," Bush said during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
But the president said now that Iraqis are headed toward "a historic election" on Thursday, it's also the United States' responsibility to help them achieve that goal.
"We are living through a watershed moment in the story of freedom," he said.
Since the White House put Bush on the offensive with four speeches against war critics and others calling for timetables for troop withdrawal, the president has seen a slight uptick in his formerly sagging poll numbers.
Bush will discuss Iraq and other issues Wednesday night in an exclusive interview with FOX News "Special Report" host, Brit Hume. Watch FOX News Channel at 6 p.m. EST for the interview.
He has continued to hit home the point that ousting former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do and even though the going may get tough at times, putting Iraq on the path toward democracy is for the greater good of Iraq, the broader Middle East and the world.
While he took responsibility for the decision to go into Iraq, Bush defended his decision to oust Saddam, who is responsible for using weapons of mass destruction on his own people and for overseeing myriad torturous acts against Iraqis.
Saddam could have avoided war by complying with the demands of the international community regarding his weapons-making capabilities and to allow unfettered access by international weapons experts to potential weapons sites, Bush said.
"The United States did not choose war. The choice was Saddam Hussein's," Bush said.
Even intelligence agencies of governments who didn't support Bush's choice to invade Iraq believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, the president noted. While no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, the president added that the so-called Duelfer Report, named after U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, found that Saddam was using the U.N. Oil-for-Food program as a way to influence companies and countries and to undermine sanctions in order to restart his weapons program.
"My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Saddam was a threat and the American people and the world are better off because he is no longer in power," he said.
The Meaning of 'Victory'
Despite some calls for the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq, Bush reiterated that America will stick by the Iraqis until they can govern and secure themselves.
"We are in Iraq today because the goal has always been more than to remove a brutal dictator. It has been to leave a free Iraq in its place," Bush said.
"We're helping the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy that is peaceful and prosperous and is an example for the broader Middle East."
Bush said terrorists such as Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have pointed to Lebanon, Somalia and Vietnam as examples of how America will leave when pressured and when challenges become difficult.
"Now the terrorists think they can make America run in Iraq. There's only one way terrorists can prevail — if we lose our nerve and leave before the job is done, and that is not going to happen on my watch," Bush said.
Democrats — many of whom voted in favor of going into Iraq — blasted the White House for not having a clear exit strategy and have called for specific times to have U.S. troops out.
But administration officials have countered that it will be up to military commanders on the ground — not politicians in Washington — to decide when Iraq can successfully secure itself, and it will be up to the new Iraqi government leaders as to how soon they get their political house in order. Administration officials say, "As Iraqis stand up, the U.S. can stand down."
Setting artificial deadlines would be a "recipe for disaster," Bush said. It would send the wrong message to Iraqis, that America is more interested in leaving than in helping them succeed. It also would send the message to terrorists that "if they wait long enough, America will cut and run."
Despite the political wrangling, Bush said, U.S. military personnel need to know "once our politicians vote to send them into harm's way, our support will be with them in good days and in bad and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory."
Before victory can be achieved, however, difficult work lies ahead, the president said.
Many Democrats have criticized Bush's oft-spoken word, "victory," as not being specific enough to describe the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
To that end, Bush responded: "Victory will be achieved by meeting certain objectives: when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can protect their own people and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks against our country. ... These objectives, not timetables set by politicians in Washington, will drive our force levels in Iraq."
He also warned the American people not to be discouraged with the Iraq voting process. Noting that elections will continue into January and that it will be a while before a new government is up and running, Bush said patience will result in a democratic, free Iraq that ultimately will result in a more secure United States.
But Democrats say staying the course isn't good enough and that Bush should be outlining a strategy that puts light at the end of the tunnel. Democrats are divided over how long that should take and have endorsed plans ranging from six months to two years or longer.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter to Bush calling for a "frank and honest dialogue" about Iraq.
"While we appreciate your recent speeches on this issue, we regret that the American people have still not been presented with a plan that identifies the remaining political, economic and military benchmarks that must be met and a reasonable schedule to achieve them," Democrats wrote.
At a news conference before Bush's speech Wednesday, Reid of Nevada said: "Tomorrow's elections must signal a turning point in the relationship between America and Iraq." After the elections, he said: "Iraq must get its political house in order and get the security forces it needs to defend itself."
Just like he did in Monday's speech at the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, Bush issued a reminder again Wednesday that no democracy was ever built without challenges, setbacks and false starts.
"Despite the violence, Iraqis have met every milestone and this is changing the political landscape in Iraq," Bush said. "I strongly believe democracy in Iraq is a crucial part in our strategy to defeat the terrorists ... freedom in Iraq will inspire reformers from Damascus to Tehran."
Thursday's election of a 275-member national assembly is likely to trigger a round of violence, White House and military officials say.
"The violence that the terrorists and Saddam loyalists are carrying out against the Iraqi people we expect to continue after the election. We are working with the Iraqi security forces to help train them and equip them so that they can address these threats," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Banking on a Positive Outcome
The administration has been banking on Thursday's elections — which would establish Iraq's first permanent, democratically-elected government — to signal that Bush's war plan is working and that U.S. forces may soon be pulled out.
Iraq has already held two elections this year — the election of the transitional government in January and the adoption of the constitution in October.
"Tomorrow is a milestone moment, an opportunity for Iraqis" to reach a new phase in their history, Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and longtime Bush adviser, told FOX News. "They have the opportunity to make a new government and make a permanent government. A new chapter in history is emerging as a unified democratic Iraq."
Hughes also said that the United States is doing more now to promote public relations with the Middle East. "We are trying to be truthful and credible messengers. [It is] difficult when you have enemies that engage in lies."
Bush has said if Sunnis get more involved in government, they will solve disputes through politics instead of violence; Sunni Arabs form the backbone of the insurgency. They largely boycotted Jan. 30 elections for an interim parliament that wrote the nation's constitution. The result was a legislature dominated by members of the Shiite Muslim majority and the strong Kurdish minority.
This time around, Sunnis are pressing for a strong turnout to build their numbers in the 275-member legislature. Many insurgent groups vowed to not attack polling stations. Several hundred parties are participating in the election and no one party is expected to win a majority.
Former President Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, advised the administration to see through its goals in Iraq, despite how much heat it takes in the process.
"I think the only way to go is to do what they think is the right thing and explain it as well as they can to the American people, as the president is attempting to do with these speeches," Kissinger told FOX News on Wednesday. "The public will not forgive you for losing even if it seems to reflect what they thought they wanted."
FOX News' Molly Hooper contributed to this report.