WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush stepped before television cameras yesterday for only the second White House news conference of the year. Question No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and beyond were about the war in Iraq – the single issue likely to define his legacy.

Morgan Morel
President Bush gestures during a news conference at the White House yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

With his poll numbers dropping and no end to the war in sight, Bush used the nationally broadcast appearance to try, once again, to address Americans’ doubts and explain why he believes Iraq is so important in the war against terror.

Yes, he said, the United States has made mistakes in Iraq. No, he said, Iraq has not plunged into a bloody civil war – an outcome that most Americans fear likely. If the United States pulls out of Iraq now, he said, terrorists will use the country as a launching pad to attack moderate governments in the Mideast and strike at the United States.

“I’m optimistic we’ll succeed,” the president said. “If not, I’d pull our troops out.” He said American forces would remain in Iraq for years and it would be up to a future president to decide when to bring them all home.

The president rejected calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, chief architect of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Listen, every war plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy,” Bush said, acknowledging mistakes as the United States was forced to switch tactics and change a reconstruction strategy that offered targets for insurgents.

The president spoke for nearly an hour at a White House news conference, part of a new offensive to ease Americans’ unhappiness with the war and fellow Republicans’ anxiety about fall elections. He faced skeptical questions about Iraq during an appearance Monday in Cleveland, and plans another address soon on Iraq.

Public support for the war and for Bush himself has fallen in recent months, jeopardizing the political capital he claimed from his 2004 re-election victory. “I’d say I’m spending that capital on the war,” Bush said.

The White House believes that people appreciate Bush’s plainspoken approach even if they disagree with his decisions.

“I understand war creates concerns,” the president said. “Nobody likes war. It creates a sense of uncertainty in the country.”

Bush has adamantly refused to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Asked if there would come a day when there would be no more U.S. forces in Iraq, Bush said, “That, of course, is an objective. And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.”

Pressed on whether that meant a complete withdrawal would not happen during his presidency, Bush said, “I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say.”

White House officials worried Bush’s remarks would be read as saying there would not be significant troop reductions during his presidency. They pointed to comments Sunday by Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who said he expected a substantial troop reduction “certainly over the course of 2006 and into 2007.”

The Pentagon announced last December that U.S. force levels would be reduced from the baseline figure of about 138,000 to about 131,000 by the end of March. The total currently is 133,000. In late February the Pentagon told Congress that “it will be possible to consider” additional reductions as the political process moves forward and as Iraqi security forces gain experience. No timetable has been set for deciding on additional cuts.

More than 2,300 American troops have died in Iraq. At home, nearly four of five people, including 70 percent of Republicans, believe civil war will break out in Iraq, according to a recent AP-Ipsos poll.

“If I didn’t believe we had a plan for victory I wouldn’t leave our people in harm’s way.”

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