WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush pleaded for Americans’ patience yesterday on what he conceded was “a very discouraging day” of death and violence for U.S. troops in Iraq. He urged Iraqis to defy terrorist threats and vote in Sunday’s elections.

Bush held a White House news conference hours after more than 30 American troops perished in a helicopter crash in western Iraq and insurgents killed five others in the deadliest day yet for U.S. forces. The deaths pushed the American toll above 1,400.

Unwavering in the course he has set, Bush pledged: “We’ll have the troop levels necessary to complete the mission. And that mission is to enable Iraq to defend herself from terrorists — homegrown or terrorists that come in from outside of the country.” He made clear that Iraq is nowhere near ready to handle its own security, and he talked about U.S. involvement over the next year.

Four days before Iraq’s elections and a week before his own State of the Union address, the president grappled with pointed questions about the war’s heavy price and growing doubts that a stable, democratic Iraq will ever emerge. In money alone, Iraq is costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a week.

Democrats registered their unhappiness with Bush’s handling of Iraq in the Senate’s 85-13 vote to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. It was the strongest negative vote against a secretary of state at least since World War II.

Bush said Americans are not alone in their qualms. Iraqis are “losing a lot of people” in bombings and assassinations, he said, and “some are feeling intimidated” about threats against voters. Moreover, Bush said: “The Iraqi people are wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as a democracy evolves.

“The enemy would like nothing more than the United States to precipitously pull out and withdraw before the Iraqis are prepared to defend themselves.”

It was the 18th full-blown news conference of Bush’s presidency and the first of his second term, covering issues ranging from Social Security to questions raised by his inaugural address. Bush made these points:

-He recognizes that some people are worried about the political risks and financial costs of overhauling Social Security by creating private investment accounts — a step that could cost $1 trillion to $2 trillion in transition costs. “What you’re hearing a little bit is whether or not it is worth the political price. I think it is,” he said. He pledged to lead a battle in Congress and travel across the country to convince Americans the system is in trouble.

-His inaugural address promising to spread freedom and end tyranny around the world was not intended as a statement of new policy but rather a reflection of the strategy he pursued in his first term. Even some of his supporters have been nervous that it signaled plans for global U.S. intervention. Bush said he has raised human rights concerns with China and will be direct with Russia’s Vladimir Putin when they meet next month in Slovakia. “I will remind him that if he intends to continue to look West, we in the West believe in Western values,” Bush said.

-The Education Department was wrong to pay conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to plug its policies. “I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward,” the president said.

The bloodshed in Iraq and Sunday’s elections framed much of the questions of Bush’s news conference.

He said he lacked details about the helicopter crash in Iraq’s western desert. “The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people,” Bush said. “I understand that. … But it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom.”

Sunday’s elections in Iraq represent a major test for Bush, who has staked his reputation on spreading democracy across the Middle East. “I anticipate a grand moment in Iraqi history,” he said.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *