WASHINGTON – President Bush said Wednesday that U.S. military strategists are changing tactics in Iraq and his "administration will carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory."
With less than two weeks until Election Day, the White House is hoping a dramatic policy shift in response to security concerns will help relieve voters discouraged by the conduct of the war.
"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied either. And that is why we're taking new steps to help secure Baghdad and constantly adjusting our tactics across the country to meet the changing threat," Bush told reporters at a press conference in the White House East Room.
That shift includes listening to advice from outside the administration. Among the proposals to come is a widely anticipated report by the Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. The group is releasing recommendations after the Nov. 7 election.
Changing his language to emphasize "flexibility" over "staying the course," Bush said the coalition is adapting its strategy to guarantee a win. The president also reassured Americans that despite the lengthy deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq, America is winning the War on Terror.
Bush rejected assertions that the changes are merely semantics over substance.
"There is a significant difference between benchmarks for a government to achieve, and a timetable for withdrawal," Bush said.
Acknowledging that the 93 U.S. forces lost so far in Iraq this month is the highest since October 2005, and Iraqi forces have lost more than 300 soldiers this month, the president said it's crucial to remain in Iraq until it can sustain itself and defend itself.
"The events of the last month have been a serious concern to me and a serious concern to the American people," Bush said. "Our security at home depends on ensuring Iraq remains an ally in the War on Terror."
After a lengthy review of events over the past three years, Bush said coalition forces are flexible in their methods of reducing violence.
"As the enemy shifts tactics we are shifting our tactics as well," Bush said. "Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions."
Bush's new approach incited Democrats, who suggested he's a little late in coming to the conclusion that the tactics need to change.
"Not surprisingly, the American people have had enough of this administration’s costly mistakes and politically motivated misstatements. They know it’s long past time for the president to admit his plan is not working and to truly change course," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a written statement.
"It’s deeply disturbing that it takes a close election – not in Iraq, but in America – to get this White House to even talk about flexibility and changing course," added Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in a separate statement. "Only the prospect of losing his rubber stamp Congress and the president’s own low polls seem to penetrate the wall of denial around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
Bush listed a two-prong strategy — military and political — for ending the violence. On the military side, he said the coalition is refining its training strategy for Iraqi forces, increasing the number of coalition advisers in Iraq's interior and defense ministries and changing the force structure "so we can better respond to the conditions on the ground."
Bush said some of the Iraqi security forces are performing below expectations in Baghdad, where forces were increased to meet greater resistance in the capital city. He added that many Iraqis have fought bravely in some of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods.
On the political side, the coalition is using a three-step approach that includes working with political and religious leaders to get them to restrain their followers and stop sectarian violence. It is helping to implement a national compact that will disarm illegal death squads, share oil revenues and amend the constitution.
Bush said the coalition and Iraq is also working with other Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to persuade Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and support Iraq as it moves forward in peace.
"Part of the strategy is to give the Iraqi government the tools it needs to protect itself, to defend itself," Bush said.
Bush expressed support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his military advisers.
"He's a smart, tough, capable administrator," he said, adding that the defense secretary has a very large load to carry reforming the military while conducting operations abroad.
On Tuesday, American officials introduced a timeline for Iraq's Shiite-led government to address security problems in Baghdad with the possibility of bringing in more troops. Gen. George Casey, the commander of the Multinational Forces in Iraq, said more troops are needed to "improve basic services for the population of Baghdad." There are 144,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.
Casey told reporters that it will take another 12 to 18 months before Iraqi security forces are "completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security."
Bush did not say he has plans to change the force strength in Iraq, but he will send more troops to Iraq if Casey asks for them. "That's the way I've been running this war," Bush said, adding, "The goal is 325,000 troops — 137,000 military and the balance police."
But a defiant al-Maliki didn't seem to be on board with U.S. military projections. On Tuesday, he slammed Casey and U.S. Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad for saying Iraq needed to set a timetable to curb violence ravaging the country.
"I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it," al-Maliki said at a news conference.
After U.S. and Iraqi forces on Wednesday raided Sadr City, the stronghold of the Shiite militia led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Maliki disavowed the operation, saying he had not been consulted and insisted "that it will not be repeated."
A Pentagon statement said that during the raid, Iraqi army forces came under fire and had to defend themselves.
"They requested support from coalition aircraft which used precision gunfire only to eliminate the enemy threat." U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad Lt. Col. Christopher Garver told FOX News that "it has been standard practice to have the Iraqi prime minister approve all operations in Sadr city."
Asked about the prime minister's remarks, Bush said it makes sense that al-Maliki would demand that military operations be coordinated with him.
"There's a lot of operations taking place, which means that, sometimes, communications may not be as good as they should be. And we'll continue to work very closely with the government to make sure that the communications are solid," he said.
Bush said the United States is pressing Iraq's leaders to take "bold measures to save their country," but he remains confident about al-Maliki, who has been in office for just under five months.
"Think about that: This young government has to solve a host of problems created by decades of tyrannical rule, and they have to do it in the midst of raging conflict against extremists from outside and inside the country who are doing everything they can to stop this government from succeeding," Bush said. "I do believe Prime Minister Maliki is the right man to achieve the goal in Iraq."
Turning from Iraq to Iran, Bush said Tehran has to back off its interference in Iraq and Lebanon, and let "young democracy succeed." He said it also must verifiably stop their uranium enrichment. He said he was still looking at diplomatic options for Iran.
"Iran has a chance to come to the table with the United States to discuss a variety of issues," he said.
Bush said the Iraq war is not the sole issue driving voters to the polls on Nov. 7. He said the vote is a fundamental distinction between what he described as the Democrat approach of "taking money out of the pockets of the working people" or the Republican plan to prolong tax cuts approved at the beginning of the Bush administration.
"Who best to protect this country, and who best to keep taxes low, and that's what the referendum is about," Bush said.
The president said he is enjoying campaigning and doesn't buy into prognostications that the election is decided. Democrats are fighting to pick up 15 seats to regain the House and six seats to reclaim the Senate. Polls show Democrats ahead in seven of the nine most contentious Senate races, with three of those races having an eight-point spread.
Some people are "dancing in the end zone, measuring the drapes," Bush said, but they are doing so prematurely. He also rejected the premise of a question that he would have better luck getting his top priorities met if he worked with Democrats.
"I've got two years left to achieve them, and I believe it is more likely to achieve those objectives with a Republican-controlled Congress and Senate. I believe I will be working with a Republican-controlled Congress and Senate."
Bush added that he doesn't resent Democrats for using his photo image in campaign advertising. "All I ask is that they pick out a good one."
Bush wrapped up the hour-long news conference by saying he expects Americans to hold responsible lawmakers who are embroiled in scandal. Several Republican lawmakers, including Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley, have left Congress as a result of either financial or sexual scandal. Republican Ohio Rep. Bob Ney pled guilty to bribery charges, but has not yet resigned from Congress.
"People have to trust elected leaders in order for democracy to work to its fullest extent," he said.