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Bush stands firm on Iraq, war on terror

President: 'I don't plan on losing my job'

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush answers reporters' questions Tuesday night.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing a conviction "deep in my soul," President Bush vowed Tuesday night to stay the course in Iraq and the war on terror, and predicted American voters will stick with him come November.

"I don't plan on losing my job," Bush said during his first prime time news conference of the year. "I plan on telling the American people that I've got a plan to win the war on terror. And I believe they'll stay with me. They understand the stakes."

Questions about Iraq and the administration's antiterror efforts dominated the one-hour news conference.

Bush opened the session with a 17-minute statement on Iraq, in which he acknowledged "tough weeks" in the country -- where deadly violence against coalition forces has flared -- but vowed to "finish the work of the fallen."

Bush reaffirmed his commitment to turn over power to the Iraqi people June 30.

"We're not an imperial power ... We're a liberating power," Bush said.

The news conference, in the East Room of the White House, comes at a time when Bush's policy in Iraq is under fire -- particularly from Democrats -- his administration's pre-9/11 antiterrorism efforts are under scrutiny and the battle for the White House is heating up.

"The American people may decide to change," Bush said. "That's democracy. I don't think so. I don't think so. And I look forward to making my case. I'm looking forward to the campaign."

The president was pressed by reporters repeatedly on whether he felt he had made any mistakes in Iraq or in not recognizing the threat of terrorism before September 11, 2001. But he expressed little doubt on the merits of his decisions or policies.

"I feel strong about what we're doing," Bush said. "I feel strongly it's the course this administration is taking that will make America more secure and the world more free and, therefore, the world more peaceful. It's a conviction that's deep in my soul."

Asked whether he felt any personal responsibility for the attacks, Bush suggested the answer was no.

"There are some things I wish we'd have done, when I look back," he said. "I mean, hindsight's easy. It's easy for a president to stand up and say, 'Now that I know what happened, it would have been nice if there were certain things in place.' "

As an example, he cited the creation of the Homeland Security Department, which came after the attacks and was initially opposed by the administration.

Asked later whether he felt a personal apology to the American people was in order, Bush demurred.

"The person responsible for those attacks was Osama bin Laden," Bush said.

Bush's counterterror effort -- and the policies of earlier administrations -- are the subject of questioning by an independent commission investigating the attacks.

One intelligence memo -- titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." and delivered to the president a month before the attacks -- was recently released by the White House at the commission's urging.

As he did earlier this week, Bush sought to play down the significance of that memo.

"Frankly, I didn't think there was anything new," Bush said. "I mean, major newspapers had talked about bin Laden's desires on hurting America."

The president said he took comfort in the fact that the memo said the FBI was conducting field investigations of al Qaeda, bin Laden's terrorist network.

"Had there been a threat that required action by anybody in the government, I would have dealt with it," Bush said.

On Iraq, Bush stuck to his position that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had posed a threat to world peace.

But he acknowledged -- as he has before -- that no weapons of mass destruction have been found there, despite the administration's assertions leading into the war.

"Of course, I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet," Bush said. "But I still know Saddam Hussein was a threat. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein."

Responding to a reporter's question, Bush rejected a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam.

"I think the analogy is false," Bush said. "I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy."

The past few weeks have been especially deadly ones in Iraq, with U.S. forces and civilian contractors targeted in numerous attacks. At least 26 Americans were killed in weekend fighting, and there has been a rise in the abduction of foreign nationals.

Bush said remnants of Saddam's regime, along with Islamic militants and terrorists from other countries, were organizing the recent attacks against U.S. forces.

On Monday, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, told the Pentagon he needs about 10,000 more troops in Iraq in light of the surge in violence there.

"If that's what he wants, that's what he gets," Bush said Tuesday.

Bush's all-but-certain Democratic rival for the White House, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has grown increasingly critical of the president's Iraq policy, saying the administration has alienated allies and failed to outline a comprehensive plan for bringing democracy to Iraq.

After Bush's news conference, Kerry released a written statement criticizing the president for not offering a specific plan for Iraq.

"The president may refuse to acknowledge a single mistake in the course of his presidency, but with deaths mounting and American sacrifice increasing, it's time he offered a specific plan that secures real international involvement, gets the target off the backs of our troops, and starts to share the burden in Iraq," Kerry's statement said.

Kerry was apparently homing in on one question during the news conference when Bush was asked to name his biggest mistake since the attacks.

Bush couldn't cite one.

"I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here -- and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one," Bush said at the news conference.

Aides said Kerry watched Bush's news conference in a hotel room in Boston, where he attended a fund-raiser.

The televised news conference was only the third of Bush's presidency to be delivered in prime time. The previous two were March 6, 2003 -- to talk about the war in Iraq -- and October 11, 2001, one month after the terrorist attacks.

Bush has held fewer formal news conferences than any president in modern history, but he takes reporters' questions in more informal settings throughout the year.

CNN's Mike Roselli contributed to this report.

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