WASHINGTON – Elections in Iraq last Thursday were "a landmark day in the history of liberty," and set the stage for the first Arab democracy in the Middle East, President Bush said Sunday night in a prime-time television speech from the Oval Office.
About 11 million Iraqis went to the polls to cast votes for a 275-member Parliament last week. The high turnout and relatively low level of violence during the election marked what many say is a new beginning for Iraq. The president suggested that it shows his strategy for victory in Iraq is working.
"This election will not mean the end of violence. But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote — 6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world — means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror," the president said.
Addressing the largest audience he's had since launching a series of speeches two weeks ago to discuss progress in Iraq, Bush told the nation that "to retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor and I will not allow it."
The president repeated many of the remarks he made in his prior speeches, but in what appears to be his most personal appeal so far, he asked Americans, in particular those who disagreed with his decision to send troops to Iraq, to take part in the success of the war and to realize only two options exist — success or failure.
"Now there are only two options before our country — victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party because the security of our people is in the balance. I do not expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair and do not give up on this fight for freedom," Bush said.
"My conviction comes down to this: We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them," he explained.
In a 16-and-a-half minute speech, the president also acknowledged to his audience that much of the intelligence that he used to justify the war in Iraq was wrong, but said even with the bad information on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, "it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Bush said it was Saddam who made the choice to go to war by refusing to comply with U.N. resolutions seeking greater transparency in his weapons programs.
"The result of that war was to rid the world of a murderous dictator who menaced his people, invaded his neighbors, and declared America to be his enemy. Saddam Hussein, captured and jailed, is still the same raging tyrant, only now without a throne. His power to harm a single man, woman, or child is gone forever. And the world is better for it," Bush said.
However, some Democrats took issue with that claim. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who supports a proposal by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq to neighboring countries, said Bush doesn't get the fact that Iraq never was an "imminent threat" to U.S. security.
"President Bush persists in pursuing a flawed policy that has not made the American people safer nor made the Middle East more secure. It is time for a new direction in Iraq — not more of the same," she said.
Bush admitted that the work of winning over and repairing Iraq was more difficult than anyone expected. He said reconstruction efforts and training of an Iraqi military started more slowly and was delayed because of an enemy that thrived off violence and suffering.
In describing the efforts so far, Bush did not offer a lot of details, but he said the coalition has learned from its mistakes and fixed what went wrong.
"Some look at the challenges in Iraq, and conclude that the war is lost, and not worth another dime or another day. I don't believe that. Our military commanders do not believe that. Our troops in the field, who bear the burden and make the sacrifice, do not believe that America has lost. And not even the terrorists believe it," the president said.
Bush said compared to a year ago when "only a handful" of Iraqi army and police battalions were ready to fight, now more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions are fighting the enemy with 50 of those battalions leading the charge and more than a dozen military bases in Iraqi control.
He also said by going to vote on Thursday, Iraqis have decided that they want their voices heard in "the future of the country they love." Because of that, he said tribal distinctions and ethnic divisions are no longer causing fights, but forcing negotiations.
The president added that the reconstruction plan to revive Iraq's economy and infrastructure has given "Iraqis confidence that a free life will be a better life.
"Today in Iraq, seven in 10 Iraqis say their lives are going well and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve even more in the year ahead. Despite the violence, Iraqis are optimistic and that optimism is justified," Bush said.
The administration has long complained that the media often ignores positive developments in the country. In the last two weeks the president has given four major speeches on Iraq — relating to security, economy and democracy — but getting the message out has not been easy, with the speeches airing during the day mostly on cable networks.
The last time the president addressed the American people from the Oval Office was when military action began in Iraq in March 2003. The latest round of speeches do appear to be having some positive impact. A new AP-Ipsos poll found that 57 percent of Americans surveyed said the U.S. military should stay until Iraq it is stabilized.
In addition, a FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll taken Dec. 13-14 found that 64 percent of people surveyed said Iraq would be worse off if U.S. troops pulled out right away. Only 20 percent said they'd be better off. The same poll showed that 61 percent said Iraq will be better off as a result of the Dec. 15 election.
But Bush's remarks come after a weekend of criticism against the president that dimmed much of Thursday's election excitement. On Saturday, the president acknowledged that over the past four years, he renewed authority more than 30 times for the National Security Agency to engage in domestic surveillance without court-ordered warrants.
House and Senate Democratic leaders, and at least two Senate Republicans, called for congressional hearings and investigations. Bush said the eavesdropping was critical to saving American lives in the fight against Al Qaeda and consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.
Aside from the latest cause for attack, Democrats also say the president is telling tales out of school by arguing that events on the ground are going as well as he says. Democrats add that the president's message is not resonating because it's not true.
They say his insistence to stay the course is wrongheaded because the U.S. strategy has not been successful. Terrorists in Iraq this weekend pierced three days of relative calm with the killing of 19 people, including two relatives of a senior Kurdish official.
Democrats add that Bush did not offer a new way forward during Sunday night's address.
"While I appreciate the president's increased candor, too much of the substance remains the same and the American people have still not heard what benchmarks we must meet along the way to know that progress is being made and that our brave troops can begin to come home. As the New Year approaches and the Iraqi people begin to form a new government, the president must provide his leadership in order to make next year a year of significant transition," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"I am disappointed that again tonight the president failed to follow the bipartisan recommendation of 79 senators and clearly urge the Iraqis to make the compromises necessary to amend their constitution and achieve a political settlement," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We can't amend their constitution for them; only the Iraqis can do that. But given the sacrifices our men and women in uniform have made and given the other costs of this war to our nation, we surely have the standing to tell the Iraqis that our commitment is not open-ended, and they must do their part to put their political house in order," Levin said.
But administration officials proudly point to Sunni Muslim participation as one of the key reasons why Thursday's elections were so strategically important. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Sunnis are going to have a voice now that they did not have after their January boycott of the election creating an interim Parliament.
"They had to, in a sense ... be grandfathered into the process because they didn't have representatives in the process. They hadn't voted. Now they will have representatives in the process," Rice told "FOX News Sunday."
"I heard a Sunni leader say that he's ready to talk to anybody who's ready to talk about the future of a united Iraq. I think that is an attitude that is shared by many Shia, many Kurds and many others. And I expect that they're going to try to come to a government that is broadly representative and that can send a strong message to the insurgents that the road ahead for Iraq is a political one, not one of violence," she added.
In his speech, Bush said opponents who say that things are going badly are doing so for partisan advantage.
"Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts. For every scene of destruction in Iraq, there are more scenes of rebuilding and hope. For every life lost, there are countless more lives reclaimed. And for every terrorist working to stop freedom in Iraq, there are many more Iraqis and Americans working to defeat them. My fellow citizens: Not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq," he said.
He was backed up by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
"I fully agree with the president that while there is always a place for thoughtful dissent here at home, the stakes are too high for us to allow political games and partisanship to detract from our objective of helping establish a free, stable and democratic Iraq," Frist, R-Tenn., who has been facing his own legal and ethics questions, said in a statement.
Bush made repeated appeals for Americans to understand what is at stake.
"It is also important for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before our work is done. We would abandon our Iraqi friends — and signal to the world that America cannot be trusted to keep its word. We would hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us — and the global terrorist movement would be emboldened and more dangerous than ever before," the president said.
The president said more sacrifice will be coming from the U.S. military and their families, but he did not give any indication when a drawdown of troops would occur. Pentagon officials said on Friday that they hope to be able to reduce U.S. troop levels back to about 138,000 by February. That's the same number of U.S. forces in Iraq before the late build-up to 160,000 ahead of the election.
In a surprise visit to Baghdad Sunday, Vice President Cheney said that Iraq's emerging political structure ultimately will take responsibility for its own security.
"Going forward, the multinational force will continue to mentor, train and support the Iraqi security forces as they take a more prominent role in defense of their country. Gradually, Iraqi forces are taking control of more Iraqi territory," he said.
"As the ISF gains strength and experience and as the political process advances, we'll be able to decrease troop levels without losing our capacity to defeat the terrorists. And on behalf of the president, I assure you, any decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground and the judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington, D.C.," Cheney told troops at Al-Asad Air Base.
Skepticism remains among some on Capitol Hill that the U.S. military can't sustain that level of force in Iraq indefinitely.
"What we're saying is this war, which has taken the lives of 2,200 American soldiers, is costing the American people approaching $300 billion — $2 billion a week. I think it's important, as indicated in a bipartisan amendment that passed the Senate — 79 senators said the war in Iraq must change course," Reid told "FOX News Sunday."
"We failed to expand the Army and Marine Corps as many of us wanted to happen a long time ago," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But McCain told ABC's "This Week" that certain towns are being protected by Iraqis despite problems in the Iraqi forces where militias are in control and corruption persists.
FOX News' Greg Kelly and Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.