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President Discusses Iraq Developments; Operation: Reconstruction

Aired October 25, 2006 - 10:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Our congressional correspondent Dana Bash.
Dana, good morning to you.

First of all, I know you have been covering a number of races around the country. First of all, give us a bit of your travel log. Where have you been and what races have you been following?

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, most recently this week, Tony, we were in one of the Philadelphia suburbs. The eighth district of Pennsylvania. That is a race -- a very, very tight race. A toss-up between the Republican congressman, a one-term congressman, Mike Fitzpatrick and his Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy. The headline in that race is that the Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy, is an Iraq War veteran and that is what he is running on and that is really the issue that's making a big statement in that race.

HARRIS: Great. So what have you been hearing with respect to the president and Iraq?

BASH: You know, it's very, very interesting to sort of see the dynamic out there, especially in these races where Republicans are fighting for their political lives. When it comes to the president, first of all, I think it's sort of noteworthy that we're going to see the president in the East Room of the White House today, not out on the campaign trail, not in a place where he would have been perhaps two years ago, four years ago, just two weeks out from the election.

Why is that? It's pretty obvious. It's because many -- most of these Republican candidates who are in tight races simply are saying, thanks, but no thanks, Mr. President. It's not going to help us. It could hurt us here.

And, for example, the place where I was in this Bucks County, Pennsylvania, it's one of those conservative suburbs, Tony, that Republicans have really built their majority on here. What the candidate there is really trying to do, the congressman, is say, you know, the president isn't on the ballot. He says it over and over. This is about me. This is about my relationship with the constituents. It's not about the president.

But, you know, the national tide, he even admits, is so strong, so negative with regard to the president and with regard to, you know, anti-incumbent, anti-Bush feelings, especially in that district, it's not easy and Iraq is playing especially because of the Democratic candidate there.

HARRIS: Congressional correspondent Dana Bash for us,

Dana, appreciate it. Thank you.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, we are bringing you extended coverage today on President Bush's news conference coming your way in about 30 minutes from now. We're talking about all the issues that could come up today. So we have our players in place. You see them there. We have Suzanne Malveaux live from the North Lawn. John Roberts live from Baghdad. Bill Schneider live in Texas. And John King live from New York.

John King, we want to start with you.

We have heard over and over again this is going to be a substantial statement on Iraq. Interesting timing, two weeks before the elections -- the midterms?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, critics of the administration that one-man substantial statement is another man's political calculation. Look, the president does have something substantial to talk about. He says the administration has reached an agreement with the Iraqi government under which the Iraqi government will accept benchmarks and timetables to improve the security situation.

But many Democrats around the country, and frankly many Republicans around the ,country as Dana Bash just noted, are saying this is a broken record. Mr. Bush said the same thing in the 2004 campaign when he was running for re-election. He said, no, Senator Kerry, you're wrong. We're making substantial progress training the Iraqi forces. They are getting closer and closer to being ready to stand up, as the president puts it, and take over security. And that simply hasn't happened.

And there's been almost $400 billion or so. We're now at 2,800 Americans killed in this war. It is the single biggest factor in a very sour election climate. So the president has a huge challenge today. Number one, to present his new policy and the new way he's communicating that policy. But try to convince the American people we're going to get it right this time.

And, again, many Republicans are quite skeptical. They have told the White House in recent week, Mr. President, we can't sell what you're saying on Iraq, so you need to say something else.

COLLINS: Well, interesting, too, John, yesterday we had an opportunity to speak with the chairs of both RNC and DNC and we heard such a difference in the agenda according to them. The co-chair for the RNC, Jo Ann Davidson, told us the issues were security, which we'll hear about today in Iraq, and the economy. They're very different for the Democrats where we heard a lot about minimum wage and about health care. Domestic issues.

KING: Well, the Democrats want to focus on what they would do, what agenda they would push if they take back one or two chambers of Congress. Let's remember, George W. Bush will be president for two more years. So no matter what the Democrats want to do, if they are successful -- still an if two weeks out -- the president would still have a veto pen he could use against the Democrats in the final two years.

But the Democrats don't think they have to talk so much about Iraq except for in some races. Dana Bash just noted that race in the Philadelphia suburbs. There are other Iraq veterans running in other races around the country. The public knows about Iraq. The public has made its decision about Iraq, so they don't need to talk about it. So they know the public's mad about Iraq and they're trying to talk about other issues saying, if you're mad at them, elect us. We'll have a new agenda. We'll go in a different direction.

COLLINS: And, John, I'd love your opinion on this too. You know, when we talk about the Democrats possibly winning the House or the Senate or both and then we talk about the do nothing Congress where President Bush was working with both a Republican House and a Republican Senate. Will he work better with a possible Democratic Congress?

KING: It is an interesting question. Now Bill Clinton went through this in 1994. He had a Democratic Congress when he came into office in 1992. The Republicans swept 52 seats in the House, took over the Senate in 1994. There was that little thing called impeachment that will be a stain on Bill Clinton's legacy. But other than that, after getting over the initial wounding, President Clinton actually worked with Republicans on some issues and used them as a political foil to boost his own political standing. He had an enemy, someone to contrast himself against.

Will President Bush do that if there is a Democratic Congress or even just a Democratic House? The president could pass his immigration bill, for example, something conservatives in the House blocked this year. So there is an opportunity. But we're 13 days away from the election. I think we'll wait and see what the results -- tune in.

Today is a big day in terms of determining whether the mood changes between now and election day. It is a huge challenge for the president because we've watched this, Heidi, throughout the past here. He has tried to change the national dynamic, the national mood about Iraq and he has simply failed.

I know Bill is standing by. I'm sure he has all the poll numbers. But one that struck me came out this, 20 percent of Americans, two in 10 Americans think the United States is winning. That's a pretty damning number if you're the president of the United States.

COLLINS: And, you know, what, we are going to get to those polls in just a few minutes.

Thank you so much, John King. We'll check back with you in just a little bit. Stick around. HARRIS: Just about 25 minutes away from the president's news conference this morning, 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Live coverage, of course, right here in the NEWSROOM. Want to get the view from Baghdad and John Roberts is there for us.

And, John, we're being promised a substantial statement on Iraq from the president in that news conference at 10:30 a.m. I have to ask you. There has been so much talk over the last couple of days about benchmarks and timetables for the Iraqi government. I'm wondering if we're talking about benchmarks and timetables that are self generated by the Iraqi government or are these benchmarks and timetables being imposed by the president on the Iraqi government?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, really, Tony, depends on who you talk to. These are benchmarks that Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki himself set a number of months ago. Zalmay Khalilzad reaffirming those yesterday, making them seem like they were an American idea. And then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki coming out today with a slap upside the head of Zalmay Khalilzad and the White House to say that Iraq's government is a sovereign government. It is not going to allow timetables to be imposed upon it. So Maliki trying to make it sound like his ideas. Zalmay Khalilzad trying to say this is something that the U.S. wants. Everybody has got a statement for public consumption.

The White House wants people in America to believe that it's pushing the Iraqi government to reach these milestones and these benchmarks in order to be able to draw down American forces, end the violence here that is consuming the country. And al-Maliki at the same time saying, essentially, I'm not a puppet of the American government. I'm making up my own mind here. I'm making my own decisions.

But really, Tony, when it comes to the core issue of stopping sectarian violence, it all goes toward these militias. Nuri al-Maliki owes his position to Muqtada al-Sadr, who's Mehdi militia is loyal to him. And if he tries to crack down on the Mehdi militia, he's going to find himself in some problems.

Which we saw today when the United States Army and some Iraqi forces launched a joint operation into Sadr City, which is that heavily Shiite area to the northeast of Baghdad. A stronghold for the Mehdi militia. They were looking for what they said was a top commander who they believe was involved in commanding these death squads that have been involved in so much of this sectarian violence. A fierce two-hour firefight erupted. It was finally put down by American air support. Four people dead, 20 injured.

What is Nuri al-Maliki come out and say today, after the U.S. said that this was approved by the Iraq government? He suggests, well, no, we didn't approve it and such operations will not occur again. So, Tony, the politics of this is just incredibly convoluted.

HARRIS: John, let me ask a simple question here. Do you have a sense on the ground there that we are on the verge of a course correction in Iraq? ROBERTS: Well, if we're not on the verge of a course correction, one has to wonder exactly what is going to happen. There simply are not enough troops on the ground, either U.S. or Iraqi, to secure Baghdad. I was down in the center of the city today in the area near the Karata (ph) neighborhood where that U.S. soldier apparently was believed to be or being held. They're not quite sure what's going on. They've got that whole area cordoned off. But while that area is under heavy security, many areas in this city simply are not.

And you go into these neighborhoods, Tony, and you go in there, just as night is falling, and they've got big palm trees cut down as makeshift barricades. There are so many weapons in all of these neighborhoods. The local mosques have take it upon themselves to not only protect the mosques, but also go out into the neighborhoods, which is at odds with the U.S. plan to try to keep guns off of the streets.

The whole city is a real mess, Tony. And it's pretty clear that as Baghdad goes, the rest of the country, to a large degree, goes. And if they can't get a handle on the violence here, it's probably only going to continue to spread throughout the rest of the country.

HARRIS: I'm thinking about November 8th. Would you be surprised if on that day or shortly thereafter we're talking about an escalation in Iraq? Would you be surprise if on November 8th we were talking about disengagement? Which would surprise you the most I guess is what I'm asking?

ROBERTS: Well, I think disengagement would surprise me because with al Qaeda showing the strength that it is here, there's a real chance that if you pull out of Iraq it's going to quickly become a failed state and many analysts and a lot of military experts believe that if U.S. troops were to pull out of Iraq, the whole place would descend into civil war within a matter of hours. What you could see, and this is only speculation, but what you could read is, many people think it would be political suicide for President Bush to say we're going to put 100,000 more troops into Iraq to really get this under control before the November 7th election. That would just prove that all of the people who have been calling for a change of plan were correct.

But don't forget that shortly after the November 7th election and the dust from it settles, people are going to start to turn their attention toward the 2008 presidential campaign. And don't forget that the Republican front-runner, John McCain, has said he wants to see tens of thousands more troops in here to Iraq. He has believed for a long time and has been saying this for years that there needs to be more troops on the ground here. So you can make the political calculation that perhaps the United States, the Republican Party at least, would want to get Iraq off the table, would not want the Republican nominee to own this in the same way that President Bush has.

So if you could throw some 100,000 more troops into Iraq to really try to get a handle on it, perhaps you could get it out of the way before the 2008 presidential race and let whoever is the Republican nominee run free and clear of Iraq.

CNN's John Roberts for us in Baghdad.

John, good to see you. Thank.

COLLINS: Reading between the lines on Iraq. What Bush administration officials say, what they don't say and what it all could mean. CNN's Brian Todd now with that story.


BRIAN TODD, CNN ANCHOR: What's the political dirty word on Iraq these days? Apparently not timetable.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: Success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable.

TODD: The ambassador's boss hasn't been an admirer of the word, at least as it applied to U.S. troop withdrawals.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The debate in Washington is whether or not we set an artificial timetable for withdrawal. That's what it's about in Washington, D.C. And the answer is, absolutely not.

TODD: That was three months ago. Since then, hundreds of Iraqi civilian deaths, the fifth highest monthly death toll among U.S. servicemen, and plummeting poll numbers on Iraq have moved the president more drastically away from another phrase. Over the summer it was . . .

BUSH: We will stay the course.

We will win in Iraq so long as we stay the course.

TODD: But just two weeks ago, it began to shift.

BUSH: The characterization of, you know, stay the course, is about a quarter right.

TODD: This week, the president's press secretary nudges it even further away.

BUSH: What you have is not stay the course, but, in fact, a steady and constant motion by the administration and by the Iraqi government.

TODD: Analysts say this is a classic political tactic when a leader is aiming for a dramatic shift in policy and needs to test it with the public.

JOHN SIDES, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: What they would like to avoid is the president making a direct statement that appears to be the exact opposite of something he said a month ago. And so one way to avoid that is to have the president say subtler things and then to let statements that are a little bit more direct come from people like Khalilzad and Tony Snow who are surrogates of the president.

TODD: But even that's politically treacherous analysts say after calls from prominent Democrats for phased withdrawals from Iraq were consistently met with this.

BUSH: If they say date certain as to when to get out before the job is done, that is cut and run.

Their policy is pretty clear to me. It's cut and run.

TODD: Analysts say we could see this delicate balancing act all the way up to the midterm election and beyond. But they say this shift in language may not be enough to shift large numbers of voters away from their positions on the biggest issue in this election by far.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


HARRIS: What you are saying about the war in Iraq? And you're saying plenty. We will explore that right after the break.

Also, another reminder. Let me sneak this in here. We're just minutes away, 15 minutes away, from the president's news conference from the East Room of the White House. The president promising a substantial statement on the war in Iraq. We'll bring it to you live in the NEWSROOM. You're watching CNN, the most trusted name in news.


COLLINS: Coming up in about 15 minutes, 10 minutes or so. He's usually on time, correct?

HARRIS: Oh, yes.

COLLINS: President Bush coming our way live from the East Room today regarding Iraq and I'm sure a number of other topics to be talking about two weeks away from the midterm elections. Could be an interesting one indeed.

We have Suzanne Malveaux standing by on the North Lawn to give us a little preview of what we might be hearing.

Suzanne, interesting, we just heard from John Roberts coming to us live from Baghdad about this agreement that the Iraqi government has either agreed to or not really agreed to regarding benchmarks and timetables for taking over their own security.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Heidi, here's the real problem the Bush administration is facing. And the question is, really, how are they going to enforce whether or not these timetables or benchmarks are really even met? I mean, what you're seeing here is al-Maliki, the Iraqi leader, offering a whole bunch of carrots to some of these militia leaders, but really no sticks. And that is the problem here. That's why you keep hearing this question about whether or not they're actually going to threaten or whether or not there's an implicit threat in this timetable benchmark discussion about pulling U.S. troops. Because there are many Democrats, there are many critics of the president who believe that really is the only way that they're going to get the Iraqis to move forward, to take more responsibility.

The second problem the Bush administration has is, of course, they are depending -- the success and failure of the U.S. policy in Iraq is dependent on the abilities of al-Maliki, a man who is thousands and thousands of miles away and whose record so far has been questionable in terms of just how much influence he has over the major players in his country.

COLLINS: Speaking of the major players in his country, is the White House satisfied with his leadership, meaning people actually looking to him as a leader and following him in Iraq?

MALVEAUX: Well, you know, it's funny because certainly public you'll hear the president talk about he has all the confidence in al- Maliki. Publicly, leaders will -- top officials will say that. But they had a discussion, a very private discussion, where al-Maliki actually called up the president for assurances from him because of rumors that were swirling that perhaps the Bush administration was going to abandon the Iraqi government. Now the president, as well as his top aides, say that is not the case. But what is the case is a certain sense of frustration here that he has not done enough essentially to dismantle these militias and to curb the sectarian violence that could become -- erupt into a civil war.

COLLINS: Suzanne, if you had to break it down here, just a few minutes, 10 minutes before this news conference, and not to put you on the spot, but what could President Bush say that would really make a difference regarding Iraq?

MALVEAUX: Well, I think what he has to say is that he has to send a consistent message here that the American people understand. I think there's a lot of confusion right here. On the one hand you have the president who, for months on end, has been urging the American people to be patient, has been urging American soldiers to stay the course, stay the course. And now what you're hearing is kind of this message that it's changed. Perhaps mend the course or change the course. They are trying to show that they are more flexible. That they get it. That there are problems inside the country, inside of Iraq.

So I think they need to send a message that, yes, we understand that there are problems here, but we are still willing to move forward. We're going to put in the kind of investments, whether it's troops or money or whatever, threats to the Iraqi government, to ultimately make this thing work. COLLINS: All right. Suzanne Malveaux from the North Lawn. She'll be stick with us as we roll into the news conference coming up in about 10 minutes or so.

Suzanne, thank you.

HARRIS: And let's now get to our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider. He's in San Antonio, Texas, so that we can talk for a minute or two about poll numbers.

And, you know what, Bill, I'm going to take Heidi's question and toss it to you. As we look at some of these numbers on Iraq, the public is saying a lot about Iraq and the president can't be happy with what he's hearing. What is it that the president could possibly say in this substantial statement on Iraq in a couple of minutes that might change the American public's view of the war?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the key word is change. He's changing direction. He's changing policy. Things are going to change in Iraq because right now politically in this country, there is an overwhelming demand for change and it is really hurting the Republican Party very, very badly. And they're very apprehensive about this midterm two weeks away.

And what's driving the demand for change is overwhelmingly dissatisfaction with Iraq. Right now, almost two-thirds of Americans say that they disapprove of the way that -- the policy is going in Iraq. That's virtually two to one. That is the lowest level of support for the Iraq War, 34 percent, that we've ever seen. Americans want to see a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A majority of Americans say that.

And, at the moment, most Americans say they favor the Democrats over the Republicans for handling Iraq. Not so much because they have confidence in the Democrats' policy or plan on Iraq. It's not entirely clear what that is. But there is such deep dissatisfaction with the Republican policy, with the administration's policy in Iraq, that there is just an overwhelming desire for change.

HARRIS: And, Bill, one other question on the issue of which party -- looking a little bit more closely at the congressional races. On the question of which party has a clearer plan for solving the country's problems, you get 38 percent to 31 percent, the public comes out on the side of Democrats. But the majorities can believe that neither party has a real, clear plan.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. It's not so much that the Democrats have convinced Americans that they can get us out, that they have a plan, that they will solve all these problems. It is a vote of dissatisfaction with what the Republican administration has been doing. The demand for change is producing a very negative vote, a negative referendum.

Remember, this is not a presidential election where people have to vote their confidence in a new leader. This is basically a vote of confidence in the current administration and it looks very, very negative right now.

HARRIS: That's our senior political analyst Bill Schneider in San Antonio, Texas, for us.

Bill, thank you.

Once again, just minutes away from the presidential news conference. The East Room of the White House. The election less than two weeks away, as Heidi just mentioned. The president focusing on security and the war in Iraq as a dynamic of that. The economy. Many issues. A broad spectrum of questions the president will be asked. And he will answer this morning just minutes away. We will bring that to you live right here in the NEWSROOM. A quick break now.


COLLINS: Hey. There's the big board. Want to take a look at this real quickly. The Dow is down about 3 points or so. But, still, again, 12,124, above 12,000. We like it. We're watching it.

And also want to remind you, President Bush coming up in just a few minutes live from the East Room. Going to be talking about an array of things. But we believe that focus will actually pertain to Iraq. So we'll bring it to you as we have been all morning long when it happens.

HARRIS: To the other war zone now, Afghanistan, and U.S. efforts to help rebuild that country. CNN's Jennifer Eccleston is embedded with U.S. forces in one of the country's poorest regions and she joins us now via broadband.

And, Jennifer, we're talking about the presidential news conference coming up in just a couple of minutes and we're listing so many of the items that we expect the president to talk about and you remind us now that we need to talk about Afghanistan. Talk to us about your embed and what you're seeing.

JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're in, as you mentioned, southeastern Afghanistan, in Patika (ph) Province, which is on the border with Pakistan. Some of those lawless tribal areas of north and south Waziristan and also Balujistan (ph). And the problem here is that they're seeing a lot of movement with Taliban fighters from Pakistan into this part of the country and it's almost becoming a transit area for the fighting that's going on. The fierce fighting, the re-emergence of the Taliban in Kandahar Province, also in Helman's (ph) Province further to the south.

And what these people are trying to do here is build up the second front here. Not just the military mission, but the reconstruction mission. Winning the hearts and minds of the people. Convincing them that the attention of the American public and the American government is not only on Iraq. That they are still here to help develop their country, and particularly this incredibly impoverished region, giving them confidence that their government in Kabul is working for them and that the Americans are here to complete the mission to go through with the promises that they made to improve the lives of the people of this country.

And especially in these impoverished areas, it really does present a very special opportunity for the Taliban to take advantage of some dissatisfaction amongst the local population who have not seen as much improvement five years now along on the war on terror. And this really is an effort amongst the United States and its partners here in the Afghan national army to counter that. A counter propaganda movement and to step up reconstruction projects to show the people here that, hey, you're not forgotten, even though there's another war going on, on another front.

HARRIS: That is an update that is very much needed. Jennifer Eccleston for us embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

Jennifer, thank you.

COLLINS: Want to get straight to John King now. He is in New York to give us a little bit more of a preview as we become very close, just minutes away, from hearing from President bush in the East Room.

And, John, it's a fair question, is it not, when we talk about Iraq, so much as we expect to hear from the president today, Afghanistan, where is the push there -- and now, John, just as I pose the question to you, we are getting the two minute warning.

So, unfortunately, we'll have to wait for you to answer to that and get straight to Elaine Quijano who is inside the East Room where this news conference will take place.



Well, senior Bush aides say to expect President Bush to spend some time talking about the Iraq conflict. In fact, his opening statement is expected to last somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes, focusing on that, that -- what's called a substantial statement on Iraq. Of course, that continues to be a major concern for this administration.

We're told to expect the president to essentially explain a little bit more following on to that news conference yesterday that included General George Casey, as well as Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Iraq, explaining and expanding upon that a little bit more. What we don't expect to hear, Heidi, is any kind of announcement when it comes to either troop withdrawals or troop additions, for that matter.

But certainly this is coming at a critical time for President Bush and for those midterm elections, too, just two weeks away, less than two weeks away now. The president getting ready to talk about that. Many Republicans nervous about their re-election prospects with the Iraq War so front and center. So expect the president to once again walk a fine line between staunchly defending his Iraq policy and at the same trying to send the message that his administration is remaining flexible when it comes to the tactics in handling the Iraq war.


COLLINS: And it is a fine line, too, isn't it, Elaine, what we're talking about, getting out the vote? First and foremost, nothing really is going to change at all unless the 40 to 60 percent of Americans who are not voting get to those polls. And we are looking at the podium. We're looking at people standing up and getting ready to hear from President George Bush. Let's listen in.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm going to spend a little more time on my opening comments than I usually do, but I'll save plenty of time for questions.

Over the past three years, I have often addressed the American people to explain developments in Iraq. Some of these developments were encouraging, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, the elections in which 12 million Iraqis defied the terrorists and voted for a free future, and the demise of the brutal terrorist Zarqawi.

Other developments were not encouraging, such as the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the fact that we did not find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the continued loss of some of America's finest sons and daughters.

Recently, American and Iraqi forces have launched some of the most aggressive operations on enemy forces in Baghdad since the war began. They have cleared neighborhoods of terrorists and death squads and uncovered large caches of weapons, including sniper scopes and mortars and powerful bombs.

There had been heavy fighting. Many enemy fighters had been killed or captured.

And we've suffered casualties of our own. This month we've lost 93 servicemembers in Iraq; the most since October of 2005.

During roughly the same period, more than 300 Iraqi security personnel have given their lives in battle. Iraqi civilians have suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of the terrorists, insurgents, illegal militias, armed groups and criminals.

The events of the past month have been a serious concern to me and a serious concern to the American people.

Today I will explain how we're adapting our tactics to help the Iraqi government gain control of the security situation. I will also explain why, despite the difficulties and bloodshed, it remains critical that America defeat the enemy in Iraq by helping the Iraqis build a free nation that can sustain itself and defend itself.

Our security at home depends on ensuring that Iraq is an ally in the war on terror and does not become a terrorist haven like Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The enemy we face in Iraq has evolved over the past three years. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, a sophisticated and violent insurgency took root.

Early on, this insurgency was made up of remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, as well as criminals released by the regime. The insurgency was fueled by al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists who focused most of their attention on high-profile attacks against coalition forces and international institutions.

We learned some key lessons from that early phase in the war. We saw how quickly al Qaeda and other extremist groups would come to Iraq to fight and try to drive us out. We overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq to continue to provide essential services to the Iraqi people.

We did not expect the Iraqi army, including the Republican Guard, to melt away in the way that it did in the face of advancing coalition forces. Despite these early setbacks, some very important progress was made in the midst of an incredibly violent period.

Iraqis formed an interim government that assumed sovereignty. The Iraqi people elected a transitional government; drafted and adopted the most progressive democratic constitution in the Arab world; braved the car bombs and assassins to choose a permanent government under that constitution; and slowly began to build a capable national army.

Al Qaeda and insurgents were unable to stop this progress. They tried to stand up to our forces in places like Fallujah -- and they were routed, so they changed their tactics.

In an intercepted letter to Osama bin Laden, the terrorist Zarqawi laid out his strategy to drag Iraq's Shia population into a sectarian war. To the credit of the Shia population, they resisted; responding to the horrific violence against them for a long time.

Yet the persistent attacks, particularly last February's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the Shia Islam's most holy shrines, eventually resulted in sectarian reprisals.

The cycle of violence in which al Qaeda insurgents attacked Shia civilians and Shia death squads retaliated against Sunnis has sharply increased in recent months, particularly in Baghdad. As the enemy shifts tactics, we are shifting our tactics as well.

Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions. Our mission is to help the elected government in Iraq defeat common enemies, to bring peace and stability to Iraq and make our nation more secure.

Our goals are unchanging. We are flexible in our methods to achieving those goals. On the military side, our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting our tactics to stay ahead of our enemies.

We are refining our training strategy for the Iraqi security forces, so we can help more of those forces take the lead in the fight and provide them better equipment and firepower to be successful.

We've increased the number of coalition advisers in the Iraqi ministries of defense and interior, so they can better plan and execute security operations against the enemy.

We have changed our force structure so we can better respond to the conditions on the ground. For example, during the Iraqi elections, we increased our force levels to more than 150,000 troops to ensure people could vote.

Most recently, we have moved additional coalition and Iraqi forces into Baghdad, so they can help secure the city and reduce sectarian violence. After some initial successes, our operations to secure Baghdad have encountered greater resistance.

Some of the Iraqi security forces have performed below expectations. Many have performed well and are fighting bravely in some of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods.

Once again, American troops are performing superbly under very difficult conditions. Together with the Iraqis, they've conducted hundreds of missions throughout Baghdad. They've rounded up or killed key insurgents and death squad leaders.

As we fight this enemy, we are working with the Iraqi government to perform -- the performance -- to improve the performance of their security forces, so they can regain control of the nation's capital and eventually assume primary responsibility for their country's security.

A military solution alone will not stop violence. In the end, the Iraqi people and their government will have to make the difficult decisions necessary to solve these problems.

So, in addition to refining our military tactics to defeat the enemy, we're also working to help the Iraqi government achieve a political solution that brings together Shia and Sunni and Kurds and other ethnic and religious groups.

Yesterday, our ambassador to Iraq, Zal Khalilzad, laid out a three-step approach.

First, we're working with political and religious leaders across Iraq, urging them to take steps to restrain their followers and stop sectarian violence.

Second, we're helping Iraqi leaders to complete work on a national compact to resolve the most difficult issues dividing their country. The new Iraqi government has condemned violence from all quarters and agreed to a schedule for resolving issues such as disarming illegal militias and death squads, sharing oil revenues, amending the Iraqi constitution and reforming the de-Baathification process.

Third, we are reaching out to Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, asking them to support the Iraqi government's efforts to persuade Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and accept national reconciliation.

The international community is also supporting the international compact that outlines the support that will be provided to Iraq as it moves forward with its own program of reform. These are difficult tasks for any government. It is important for Americans to recognize that Prime Minister Maliki's unity government has been in office for just over 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.

We are pressing Iraqi's leaders to take bold measures to save their country. We're making it clear that America's patience is not unlimited. Yet we also understand the difficult challenges Iraq's leaders face.

And we will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear. The way to succeed in Iraq is to help Iraq's government grow in strength and assume more control over its country as quickly as possible.

I know the American people understand the stakes in Iraq. They want to win. They will support the war as long as they see a path to victory.

Americans can have confidence that we will prevail because thousands of smart, dedicated military and civilian personnel are risking their lives and are working around the clock to ensure our success.

A distinguished independent panel of Republicans and Democrats, led by Former Secretary of State Jim Baker and Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is taking a fresh look at the situation in Iraq and will make recommendations to help achieve our goals.

I welcome all these efforts.

My administration will carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory.

It's my responsibility to provide the American people with a candid assessment on the way forward. There is tough fighting ahead. The road to victory will not be easy. We should not expect a simple solution.

The fact that the fighting is tough does not mean our efforts in Iraq are not worth it. To the contrary, the consequences in Iraq will have a decisive impact on the security of our country, because defeating the terrorists in Iraq is essential to turning back the cause of extremism in the Middle East.

If we do not defeat the terrorists or extremists in Iraq, they will gain access to vast oil reserves and use Iraq as a base to overthrow moderate governments across the broader Middle East.

They will launch new attacks on America from this new safe haven. They will pursue their goal of a radical Islamic empire that stretches from Spain to Indonesia.

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.

But we cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose in this war. We must look at every success -- we must not look at every success of the enemy as a mistake on our part, cause for an investigation or a reason to call for our troops to come home.

We must not fall prey to the sophisticated propaganda by the enemy, who is trying to undermine our confidence and make us believe that our presence in Iraq is the cause of all its problems.

If I did not think our mission in Iraq was vital to America's security, I'd bring our troops home tomorrow.

I've met too many wives and husbands who've lost their partners in life; too many children who won't ever see their mom and dad again. I owe it to them and to the families who still have loved ones in harm's way to ensure that their sacrifices are not in vain.

Our country's faced adversity before during times of war. In past wars, we've lost young Americans who gave everything to protect our freedom and way of life.

In this war, we've lost good men and women who've given their lives for a cause that is necessary and it is just.

We mourn every loss. And we must gird ourselves for the sacrifices that are yet to come. America's men and women in uniform are the finest in the world. I'm awed by their strength and their character.

As General Casey reported yesterday in Iraq, the men and women of the armed forces have never lost a battle in over three years in the war.

Every American can take pride in our troops and the vital work they are doing to protect us. Our troops are fighting a war that will set the course for this new century.

The outcome will determine the destiny of millions across the world. Defeating the terrorists and extremists is the challenge of our time and the calling of this generation.

I'm confident this generation will answer that call and defeat and ideology that is bent on destroying America and all that we stand for.

And now I'll be glad to answer some of your questions.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the war in Iraq has lasted almost as long as World War II for the United States. And as you mentioned, October was the deadliest month for American forces this year -- in a year. Do you think we're winning, and why?

BUSH: First of all, this is a different kind of war than a war against the fascists in World War II. We were facing a nation state -- two nation states -- three nation states in World War II. We were able to find an enemy by locating its ships or aircraft or soldiers on the ground.

This is a war against extremists and radicals who kill innocent people to achieve political objectives. It has a multiple of fronts.

Afghanistan was a front in this war against the terrorists. Iraq is now the central front in the war against the terrorists.

This war is more than just finding people and bringing them to justice. This war is an ideological conflict between a radical ideology that can't stand freedom and moderate, reasonable people that hope to live in a peaceful society.

And so it's going to take a long time. I am confident we will succeed. I am confident we'll succeed in Iraq. And the reason I'm confident we'll succeed in Iraq is because the Iraqis want to succeed in Iraq.

The ultimate victory in Iraq, which is a government that can sustain itself, govern itself and defend itself, depends upon the Iraqi citizens and the Iraqi government doing the hard work necessary to protect their country. And our job is to help them achieve that objective.

As a matter of fact, my view is: The only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done.

And I'm confident we can succeed in the broader war on terror, this ideological conflict.

I'm confident because I believe the power of liberty will defeat the ideology of hate every time, if given a chance.

I believe that the radicals represent the few in the Middle East. I believe the majority of people want to live in a peaceful world. That's what I believe.

And I know it's incumbent upon our government, and others who enjoy the blessings of liberty, to help those moderates succeed.

Because otherwise we're looking at the potential of this kind of world, a world in which radical forms of Islam compete for power; a world in which moderate governments get toppled by people willing to murder the innocent; a world in which oil reserves are controlled by radicals in order to extract blackmail from the West; a world in which Iran has a nuclear weapon.

And if that were to occur, people would look back at this day and age and say, "What happened to those people in 2006? How come they couldn't see the threat to a future generation of people?"

Defeat will only come is the United States becomes isolationist and refuses to, one, protect ourselves; and, two, help those who desire to become -- to live in a moderate, peaceful world.

And it's a hard struggle; no question about it. And it's a different struggle.

QUESTION: Are we winning?

BUSH: Absolutely we're winning.

Al Qaeda's on the run. As a matter of fact, the mastermind, or the people who they think is the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks, is in our custody. We've now got a procedure for this person to go on trial, to be held for his account.

Most of al Qaeda that planned the attacks on September the 11th have been brought to justice. Extremists have now played their hand. The world can clearly see their ambitions.

You know, when a Palestinian state began to show progress, extremists attacked Israel, to stop the advance of a Palestinian state. They can't stand democracies.

Extremists and radicals want to undermine fragile democracy because it's a defeat for their way of life, their ideology.

People now understand the stakes. We're winning and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done. And the crucial battle, right now, is Iraq.

And as I said in my statement, I understand how tough it is, really tough. It's tough for a reason, because people understand the stakes of success in Iraq.

And my point to the American people is that we're constantly adjusting our tactics to achieve victory.

QUESTION: Are you considering sending more U.S. troops to Iraq? What would be the justification for it? And how reliable is this new timetable of 12 to 18 months?

BUSH: I will send more troops to Iraq if General Casey says, "I need more troops in Iraq to achieve victory." And that's the way I've been running this war.

I have great faith in General Casey. I have great faith in Ambassador Khalilzad. I trust our commanders on the ground to give the best advice about how to achieve victory.

I want to remind you, victory is a government that can sustain itself, govern -- a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself and serves as an ally in the war on terror, which stands in stark contrast to a government that would be chaotic, that would be a safe haven for the enemy to launch attacks on us. One way for the American people to understand what Iraq could look like is what Afghanistan looked like under the Taliban, a place where there was no freedom, a place where women were taken into the public square and beaten if they did not adhere to the strict, intolerant guidelines of the Taliban, a place where thousands trained to attack America and our allies.

Afghanistan doesn't have nearly the resources that Iraq has. Imagine a safe haven for an enemy that ended up with the resources that it had.

And so this is a war where I say to our generals, "Do you have what it takes to win?"

Now, General Casey talked about part of our strategy. And part of the strategy is to give the Iraq government the tools necessary to protect itself, to defend itself. If you're able to defend yourself, you're more likely to be able to govern yourself, as well.

But politics, the political way forward, and the military way forward, must go hand in hand. And what the general was saying yesterday is that there is a three-step process to enable the Iraqi forces to be able to help this government bring security.

One was to train and equip. The goal is 325,000 troops -- 137,000 military and the balance police.

Second was to put the Iraqi security forces in the lead. Six of 10 divisions now are in the lead in helping this government defend itself.

The strategy has been to embed U.S. personnel, officers and noncomm. officers, into these forces to help them gain the confidence and the capacity to be effective when they're in the lead.

And the third step is for the Iraqi security forces to be able to operate independently. And this, perhaps, is going to be one of the most difficult aspects of having the Iraqis ready to go, because that means they have to be able to drive themselves, maintain their vehicles, provide logistics, have a combat service support.

And that's what General Casey was describing.

The key is that our commanders feel that they have got enough flexibility to design the program to meet the conditions on the ground.

You know, last spring, I thought for a period of time we'd be able to reduce our troop presence early next year. That's what I felt.

But because we didn't have a fixed timetable and because General Casey and General Abizaid and the other generals there understand that the way we're running this war is to give them flexibility, have the confidence necessary to come and make the recommendations here in Washington, D.C., they decided that that wasn't going to happen. So what he was describing to you was the way forward, to make sure that the Iraqis are fully prepared to defend themselves.


BUSH: It's a conditions-based estimate. And that's important for the American people to know. This notion about, you know, fixed timetable of withdrawal, in my judgment, means defeat.

You can't leave until the job is done. Our mission is to get the job done as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Mr. President, for several years, you have been saying that America will "stay the course" in Iraq. You were committed the policy. And now you say that: No, you're not saying "stay the course," that you're adapting to win, that you're showing flexibility.

And as you mentioned, out of Baghdad we're now hearing about benchmarks and timetables from the Iraqi government, as relayed by American officials, to stop the sectarian violence.

In the past, Democrats and other critics of the war who talked about benchmarks and timetables were labeled as defeatists, Defeatocrats, or people who wanted to cut and run.

So why shouldn't the American people conclude that this is nothing from you other than semantic, rhetoric games and all politics two weeks before an election?

BUSH: There is a significant difference between benchmarks for a government to achieve and a timetable for withdrawal.

You're talking about -- when you're talking about the benchmarks, he's talking about the fact that we're working with the Iraqi government to have certain benchmarks to meet as a way to determine whether or not they're making the hard decisions necessary to achieve peace.

I believe that's what you're referring to. And we're working with the Iraqi government to come up with benchmarks.

Listen, this is a sovereign government. It was elected by the people of Iraq. What we're asking them to do is, "When do you think you're going to get this done? When can you get this done?" -- so the people themselves in Iraq can see that the government is moving forward with a reconciliation plan and plans necessary to unify this government.

That is substantially different from people saying, "We want a time certain to get out of Iraq."

As a matter of fact, the benchmarks will make it more likely we win. Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose.

Now, I'm giving the speech -- you're asking me why I'm giving this speech today -- because there's -- I think I owe an explanation to the American people and will continue to make explanations. The people need to know that we have a plan for victory.

Like I said in my opening comments, I fully understand that, if the people think we don't have a plan for victory, that they're not going to support the effort. And so I'll continue to speak out about -- about our way forward.

QUESTION: Sir, you've called Iran part of the axis of evil, and Syria a state sponsor of terrorism. You said earlier today that your administration will consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory.

So I'm wondering: If it's determined that Iran and Syria could help you achieve victory in Iraq, would you be willing to work with them?

BUSH: Iran and Syria understand full well that the world expects them to help Iraq. And we've made that very clear to them.

Let me talk about the Iranian issue. We've got a lot of issues with Iran.

The first is whether or not they will help this young democracy succeed.

The second issue, of course, is whether or not they will help the Lebanese democracy succeed, the Siniora government, which is a priority of this government -- is to help that Siniora government.

The big issue right now is whether or not Iran will end up with a nuclear weapon. And so, our issues with Iran are many. And our position is very clear to the Iranians: There is a better way forward for the government and the people than to be isolated.

And we will continue to work to make it clear to the Iranian government that -- on all three accounts -- the sponsor of terrorists will cause more isolation.

We've got a very active diplomatic effort taking place. The Iranians know our position on Iraq, and they know it clearly.

More importantly, they know the Iraqis' position relative to Iran. We're helping a sovereign government succeed. And the Iraqis have sent messages to the Iranians: To help us succeed, don't interfere in the internal affairs.

As to Syria, our message to Syria is consistent: Do not undermine the Siniora government in Lebanon.

Help us get back the -- help Israel get back the prisoner that was captured by Hamas. Don't allow Hamas and Hezbollah to plot attacks against democracies in the Middle East. Help inside of Iraq. They know our position, as well.

QUESTION: May I just follow, please?

James Baker has himself said that he believes the U.S. should work with Iran. So would you be willing to work with Iran in a way that allows some sort of negotiations in Iraq, even if they don't come to the table in the P-3 and P-5...

BUSH: Iran has a chance to come to the table with the United States to discuss a variety of issues.

And the way forward is one that I had made clear at previous press conferences. And that is, if they would verifiably stop their enrichment, the United States will be at the table with them.

In the meantime, they understand our position and they understand, more importantly, the Iraqi position about the interference inside their country.

QUESTION: Prime Minister Maliki apparently gave his own news conferences this morning, where he seemed to be referring to Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey yesterday, when he said nobody has the right to set any timetables in Iraq, and also seemed to be upset about the raid in Sadr City, saying he wasn't consulted. And, I believe the quote was, "It will not be repeated."

Do you still have full, complete and total confidence in Prime Minister Maliki as a partner in Iraq?

And what can you tell the American people about his ability to rein in the militias, since he seems to derive much of his power front them?

BUSH: First, this is back to the question that David asked about benchmarks. You called it "timetables." OK, we call it "timetables." Excuse me.

I think he's referring to the benchmarks that were developing that show a way forward to the Iraqi people -- and the American people, for that matter -- about how this unity government is going to solve problems and bring the people together.

And if his point is that those benchmarks, or the way forward, can't be imposed upon Iraq by an outside force, he's right. This is a sovereign government.

But we're working closely with the government to be able to say, "Here's what's going to happen then," "Here's what we expect to happen now," "Here's what should be expected in the future."

The second part of your question?


BUSH: Oh, on the sectarian -- on the militias -- I heard that and I asked to see his complete transcript of this press conference where he made it very clear that militias harm the stability of his country; people who operate outside the law will be dealt with.

That's what the prime minister said in his press conference. The idea that, you know, we need to coordinate with him makes sense to me. And 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.

I do believe Prime Minister Maliki is the right man to achieve the goal in Iraq. He's got a hard job. He's been there for five months -- a little over five months. And there's a lot of pressure on him -- pressure from inside his country.

Look, he's got to deal with sectarian violence, he's got to deal with criminals, he's got to deal with al Qaeda; all of whom are lethal. These are people that will kill.

And he wants to achieve the same objective I want to achieve. And he's making tough decisions. I'm impressed, for example, by the way that he has got religious leaders, both Sunni and Shia, to start working together. I appreciate the fact that he has made a very clear statement on militias.

And by the way, death squad members are being brought to justice in this plan -- during these operations in Baghdad.

And I speak to him quite frequently. And I remind him we're with him, so long as he continues to make tough decisions. That's what we expect. We expect that the Iraqi government will make the hard decisions necessary to unite the country and listen to the will of the 12 million people.

QUESTION: North Korean leaders apparently today warned South Korea against joining international sanctions, saying South Korea would pay a high price if they did so.

Are you still confident that South Korea and China will implement the full force of the U.N.-passed sanctions?

And what happens if North Korea continues to thumb its nose at the world?

BUSH: I believe that -- first of all, I've been briefed on this subject recently by the secretary of state who just came back from the Far East.

She met with the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Chinese and the Russians. Her report is that all countries understand we must work closely together to solve this problem peacefully.

And that means adhering to the latest United Nations Security Council resolution that was passed.

The leader of North Korea likes to threaten. In my judgment, what he's doing is just testing the will of the five countries that are working together to convince him there is a better way forward for his people. I don't know the exact words he used, but this is not the first time that he's issued threats and our goal is to continue to remind our partners that when we work together, we're more likely to be able to achieve the objective, which is to solve this problem diplomatically.

And so I would report to you the coalition remains firm. And we will continue to work to see to it that it does remain firm.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for taking questions today.

BUSH: What was that?

QUESTION: Thank you for taking questions today.

BUSH: I'm just happy to be able to do so, brother.


I can't tell you how joyful it is.


QUESTION: When you first ran for president, sir, you talked about the importance of accountability. We learned from Bob Woodward's recent book that Secretary Card (sic) on two occasions suggested that you replace Secretary Rumsfeld, and both times you said no.

Given that the war in Iraq is not going as well as you wanted, given that you're not satisfied, as you just told us today...

BUSH: Right.

QUESTION: ... why hasn't anybody been held accountable? Should somebody be held accountable?

BUSH: You're asking me why I believe Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a good job, I think, if I might decipher through the Washington code.


BUSH: Well, let's start with Rumsfeld, Secretary Rumsfeld.

I've asked him to do some difficult tasks as the secretary of defense: One, wage war in two different theaters of this war on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq; and, at the same time, asked him to transform our military posture around the world and our military readiness here at home.

The transformation effort into itself is a big project for any secretary to handle. But to compound the job he has, he's got to do that and at the same time wage war. And I'm satisfied of how he's done all his jobs. He is a smart, tough, capable administrator. As importantly, he understands that the best way to fight this war, whether it be in Iraq or anywhere else around the world, is to make sure our troops are ready, that morale is high, that we transform the nature of our military to meet the threats, and that we give our commanders on the ground the flexibility necessary to make the tactical changes to achieve victory.

This is a tough war in Iraq. I mean, it's a hard fight, no question about it. All you got to do is turn on your TV.

But I believe that the military strategy we have is going to work. That's what I believe.

And so we've made changes throughout the war; we'll continue to make changes throughout the war. But the important thing is whether or not we have the right strategy and the tactics necessary to achieve that goal. And I believe we do.


BUSH: Wait a minute, let me -- the ultimate accountability rests with me. That's the ultimate. If you're asking about accountability, it rests right here. That's what the 2004 campaign was about, you know. If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president.

I believe our generals are doing the jobs that I asked them to do. They're competent, smart, capable men and women. And this country owes them a lot of gratitude and support.

Clever little follow-up you slipped in there. Gregory's still mad he didn't get the follow-up, but that's OK.


QUESTION: You said, Mr. President, several times, here this morning, that the definition of failure in Iraq would be to leave before the job was done.

But you also said that you have no intention of seeing our troops standing in the crossfire of a sectarian war within that country. With many observers on the ground saying that civil war is as close as it's ever been, how do you reconcile those two statements?

And what happens if a full-fledged civil war breaks out?

BUSH: Our job is to prevent the full -- full-scale civil war from happening in the first place. It's one of the missions, is to work with the Maliki government to make sure that there is a political way forward that says to the people of Iraq, "It's not worth it. Civil war is not worth the effort" -- by them.

That's the whole objective: to help this government be able to defend itself and sustain itself, so that the 12 million people that voted -- they didn't vote for civil war. They voted to live under a constitution that was passed. And so we will work to prevent that from happening.


BUSH: Let me finish. I view that this is a struggle between radicals and extremists who are trying to prevent there to be a democracy, for a variety of reasons. And it's in our interests that the forces of moderation prevail, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A defeat there -- in other words, if we were to withdraw before the job is done, it would embolden extremists who would say, "You know, we were right about America in the first place, that America did not have the will necessary to do the hard work." That's precisely what Osama bin Laden has said, for example.

A defeat there would make it easier for people to be able to recruit extremists and kids to be able to use their tactics to destroy innocent life. A defeat there would dispirit people throughout the Middle East who wonder whether America is genuine in our commitment to moderation and democracy.

And I told you what the scenario could look like 20 or 30 years from now if we leave before the job is done. It's a serious business. And that's why I say it's the call of this generation.

And I understand how tough it is, see? But I also said in my remarks, just because the enemy has been to, you know, make some progress doesn't mean we should leave. Quite the contrary. We ought to do everything we can to help prevent them from making progress, and that is what our strategy is.


BUSH: You're asking me hypotheticals.

Our job is to make sure there's not one, see. Been around here five and a half years; you know I won't answer hypotheticals. Occasionally slip up, but...

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

You talk about the U.S. government and the Iraqi government working closely together on benchmarks. I'm wondering, sir: Why was Prime Minister Maliki not at the news conference yesterday with General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad? Would that not have sent a strong message about there being a very close level of cooperation between the two governments?

BUSH: I have no idea why he wasn't there.

QUESTION: Was he invited, sir?

BUSH: I have no idea. I'm not -- I'm not the scheduler of news conferences. I do know they work very closely together and they've got a very close working relationship, and that's important... QUESTION: May I ask you, sir, following up: When you said that you're not satisfied with the way things are going in Iraq, why should that not be interpreted by some to mean that you are dissatisfied with Prime Minister Maliki's performance?

BUSH: Because I know Prime Minister Maliki, I know how hard his job is, and I understand that he is working to make the decisions necessary to bring this country together.

And he's -- look, we'll push him, but we're not going to push him to the point where he can't achieve the objective. And we'll continue to work with him.

He is a -- he represents, you know, a government formed by the people of Iraq. It's a -- and he's got a tough job. I mean look, think about what his job is like. He's got to deal with political factions. He's got to deal with the hatred that is left over from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

There's a lot of people still furious about what happened to them during Saddam Hussein's period.

You can imagine that. What happens if your brother or sister were -- had been assassinated by Saddam Hussein and his political party. You wouldn't be happy about it.

Reconciliation is difficult in a society that had been divided and tortured by a tyrant.

And Prime Minister Maliki has got the difficult job of reconciling these grievances and different political parties on top of that, plus dealing with violence.

I've talked to him a lot. I like his spirit. I like his attitude. He's confident we can achieve the mission. He's not -- you know, he's realistic about how difficult it is in Iraq.

It's in our government's interests that we help him succeed. Because he wants a unified country. And I believe we will succeed. I know we're not going to succeed, however, if we set artificial timetables for withdrawal or we get out of there, or we say to the enemy, just keep fighting; we'll leave soon.

That's not going to work. What will work is a strategy that's constantly -- tactics that constantly change to meet the enemy. And that's what I was describing in my speech. We're constantly adjusting.

As the enemy changes, we change. War is not -- this war and other wars -- they're not static. They're dynamic events. And we must adjust to meet those events. And we are.

QUESTION: Does the United States want to maintain permanent bases in Iraq?

And I would follow that by asking, are you willing to renounce a claim on permanent bases in Iraq?

BUSH: Any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government.

And, frankly, it's not in much of a position to be thinking about what the world's going to look like five or 10 years from now. They are working to make sure that we succeed in the short term. And they need our help. And that's where our focus is.

But remember, when you're talking about bases and troops, we're dealing with a sovereign government.

Now, we entered into an agreement with the Karzai government. They weren't called permanent bases, but they were called arrangements that will help this government understand that there will be a U.S. presence so long as they want them there.

And at the appropriate time, I'm confident we'll be willing to sit down and discuss, you know, the long-term security of Iraq. But right now we're discussing how to bring security to Baghdad and what do we do in al-Anbar Province, where al Qaeda still uses violent methods to achieve political objectives.

You know, it's interesting, if you -- I'm sure people who watch your TV screens think the entire country is embroiled in sectarian conflict and that there's constant killing everywhere in Iraq.

Well, if you listened to General Casey yesterday, you know, 90 percent of the action takes place in five of the 18 provinces. And around Baghdad, it's within a 30-mile area.

And the reason I bring that up is that while it seems to our American citizens that nothing normal is taking place -- and I can understand why. It's a brutal environment there, particularly that which is on our TV screens.

That -- there is, you know, farmers farming. There are small businesses growing. There's a currency that's relatively stable. There's an entrepreneurial class. There's commerce.

General Abizaid was describing to me what it was like to, you know, go to Baghdad markets.

There's a lot work to be done. Don't get me wrong, but there are people living relatively normal lives who I believe -- strongly believe -- that they want to continue that normalcy. And it's up to Prime Minister Maliki to do everything he can to make the situation as secure as possible.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

Is the coming election a referendum on Iraq? Should it be?

BUSH: I think the coming election is a referendum on these two things: which party has got the plan that will enable our economy to continue to grow and which party has a plan to protect the American people.

And Iraq is part of the security of the United States. If we succeed and when we succeed in Iraq, our country will be more secure. If we don't succeed in Iraq, the country is less secure.

The security of this country -- and, look, I understand here in Washington, some people say we're not at war. I know that. They're just wrong, in my opinion.

The enemy still wants to strike us. The enemy still wants to achieve safe haven from which to plot and plan. The enemy would like to have weapons of mass destruction in order to attack us.

These are lethal, cold-blooded killers. And we must do everything we can to protect the American people, including questioning detainees or listening to their phone calls from outside the country to inside the country.

In other words, as you know, there was some recent votes on that issue. And the Democrats voted against giving our professionals the tools necessary to protect the American people.

I will repeat, like I've said to you often: I do not question their patriotism; I question whether or not they understand how dangerous this world is.

And this is a big issue in the campaign. Security of the country is an issue, just like taxes are an issue.

If you raise taxes, it will hurt the economy. If you don't extend the tax cuts, if you don't make them -- in other words, if you let the tax cuts expire, it will be a tax increase on the American people.

Take the child tax credit. If it is not made permanent -- in other words, if it expires -- and you've got a family of four sitting around the breakfast table, the taxpayers can be sure that their taxes will go up by $2,000: $500 for that child, $500 for the one right there; $500 for this one and $500 for that one.

That is a tax increase. And taking $2,000 out of the pockets of the working people will make it harder to sustain economic growth.

So the two issues I see in the campaign can be boiled down to who best to protect this country and who best to keep taxes low. That's what the referendum's about.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

You've long talked about the importance when the federal government is involved in an effort, spending money and resources, of measuring success, accountability, as Peter said.

Now you've set some benchmarks on the Maliki government. You've said that you're expecting him to make tough decisions. Can you tell the American people how you plan to measure his success in reaching those benchmarks and what happens if he doesn't hit those benchmarks?

BUSH: The first objective is to develop benchmarks that the government agrees with and that we think are important. You can't -- it's really important for the American people to understand that to say, "OK, these are the benchmarks you must live with," is not going to work nearly as effectively as if we have -- when we have buy-in from the government itself, the sovereign government of Iraq.

And so the step is to say to the Maliki government -- which we're doing -- let us work in concert to develop a series of benchmarks to achieve different objectives.

And the purpose of that is to assure the Iraqi people that this unity government is going to work for the improvement of the Iraqi people. In other words, it'll be beneficial for the government to say to the Iraqi people, "Here's what we intend to do and here's when we intend to do it."

It'll also be beneficial for the American people to be able to see that this Iraqi government is going to make the difficult decisions necessary to move forward to achieve the goal. And that's what we're talking about when it comes to benchmarks.

Again, I repeat: One should not expect our government to impose these benchmarks on a sovereign government. You'd expect us to work closely with that government to come up with, you know, a way forward that the government feels comfortable with.

And there are probably going to be some bones of contention during these discussions. But nevertheless, we'll respect the fact that the Iraq government is sovereign. And they must respect the fact that we've got patience, but not unlimited patience.

QUESTION: Follow-up: What happens when that patience runs out?

BUSH: See, that's that hypothetical he was trying to get me to answer.

Why don't we work to see that it doesn't work out -- run out? That's the whole objective. That's what positive people do. They say, "We're going to put something in place and we'll work to achieve it."

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

With a Republican Congress, you failed to achieve three major goals of your second term: Social Security reform, a tax code overhaul and a comprehensive immigration bill.

Why shouldn't Americans give Democrats a chance to work with you on those issues, especially when divided governments seemed to work in the late 1990s on the budget?

BUSH: That's a tricky little question there.


I -- first, I haven't given up on any of those issues. I've got two years left to achieve them. And I firmly believe it is more likely to achieve those three objectives with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican-controlled Senate. And I believe I'll be working with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican- controlled Senate.

I understand, here in Washington, people have already determined the outcome of the election like it's over, even before the people actually start heading -- you know, voting.

But that's not what I see when I'm on the campaign trail. You know, we've got some people dancing in the end zone here in Washington, D.C., measuring their drapes.

They're going over to the Capitol and saying, "My new office looks beautiful. I think I'm going to have this size drape there, or this color."

But the American people are going to decide, and they're going to decide this race based upon who best to protect the American people and who best to keep the taxes low.

Secondly, I'll tell you what I see. You didn't ask, but I'm going to tell you anyway. I see a lot of enthusiasm amongst the grassroots activists. Our people are going out there to man the phones and to put up the yard signs. You know, they're showing up when it comes time for these absentee votes.

We're organized. We've got a fantastic grassroots organization to turn out the vote.

This campaign has obviously got national implications to it, no question about it: the Iraq war, the security of the country, economic vitality and growth.

But each of these elections turn out to be local in their scope and in their character. And we got good candidates, running hard. And we're going to win.

Now, I know that defies conventional wisdom here. I'm not suggesting anybody in this august crowd has determined the outcome of the election already.

But they're running profiles on who -- this person's going to be running this office or this one. These magazines have got all kinds of new stars emerging, when they hadn't even won the votes yet.

And anyway, thanks for asking about the campaign. I'm enjoying it out there. I like campaigning. It's what guys like me do in order to get here. We campaign. We shake the hands, you know, and give the speeches. And Laura's campaigning, too. And from my perspective, our people are ready to go out there and vote our candidates back into power.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Your comment earlier that last spring you believed that troops would be able to come home early next year...

BUSH: Yes?

QUESTION: ... I wonder if you could talk to us about how you came to believe that, and over what period of time, or whether it was a single development because you realized that wasn't feasible.

BUSH: No, no, no. Look, here's the way it works.

You know, I meet with our -- or talk to our generals all the time, and the security situation looked like at that point in time that, beginning next year, we could reduce our troop presence. That's what we felt -- until the conditions on the ground changed. And when they changed, our generals changed their attitude. And when their attitude changed, my attitude changed.

Look, I want to get our troops home as fast as we can. But I do not want to, you know, leave before we achieve victory. And the best way to do that is to make sure we have a strategy that works, tactics that adjust to the enemy, and commanders that feel confident making recommendations to the secretary and to the commander in chief.

And that's how that happened, you know? In other words, they're saying it looks like things are positive, things are stepping up. The security situation, you know, looks like it could be this way.

And then when it changed, we changed. And that's important for the American people to know, that we're constantly changing tactics to meet the situation on the ground.


QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you quickly, sir, if you believe that Iraq will be able to defend, sustain and govern itself by the time you leave office?

BUSH: I believe Iraq will be able to defend, govern and sustain itself. Otherwise, I'd pull our troops out. See, you already understand that.

And the parents of our troops must understand that if I didn't believe we could succeed and didn't believe it was necessary for the security of this country to succeed, I wouldn't have your loved ones there.

That's what I want these parents to hear.

And, you know, that's a backhanded way of getting me to put a timetable. My answer is, we'll work as fast as we can get the job done.

QUESTION: I understand what you would claim, or assert, that the Republicans will win the midterm elections. But if in your heart of hearts, you really didn't think that, would you tell us so?


QUESTION: And are you resentful that some Republican candidates seem to be distancing themselves from you?

BUSH: You know, no, I'm not -- nor am I resentful that a lot of Democrats who are using my picture. All I ask is that they pick out a good one.


Make me look good, at least, on the picture.

Mark, the first part of your question -- the serious part -- if I thought we were going to lose, would I tell you -- we're not going to lose -- my heart of hearts.


Now, again, I understand how -- look, I read -- look at the newspapers around here. I can see why you think that, you know, I'm concealing something in my heart of hearts.

The race is over as far as a lot of the punditry goes. You know, they've got it all figured out. And they just -- as I said, they're dancing in the end zone. They just hadn't scored the touchdown. You know, there's a lot of time left.

And these candidates are working hard out there. And my message to them is: Keep talking about the security of the United States and keeping taxes low, and you'll come back here.

Last question.

QUESTION: Back in 2000, you campaigned around the country, saying you wanted to usher in the responsibility era, to end the days when people said: If it feels good, do it; and, if you've got a problem, blame somebody else.

BUSH: Right.

QUESTION: Over the last several months, we've seen many members of your own party in Congress embroiled in one scandal or another, and all too ready to blame somebody else, whether prosecutors or Democrats or even the media.

So I'm wondering: Why do you think it is so many people in your own party have failed to live up the standards of the responsibility era?

BUSH: If any person in any party fails to live up to high standards, they ought to be held to account. It's important for there to be trust in the halls of Congress and in the White House and throughout government.

People have got to trust elected leaders in order for democracy to work to its fullest extent.

And I fully expect, you know, people to be held to account if there's wrong-doing; just like I expect corporate executives to be held to account for wrong-doing, just like I expect people throughout our society to be held to account for wrong-doing.

People do have to take responsibility for the decisions they make in life. I take responsibility for the decisions I make. I also understand that those of us in positions of responsibility have the duty to bring, you know, honor to the offices we hold.

People don't have to agree with somebody's opinion. There's all kinds of opinions here. But in order to make this country work and to make democracy succeed, there's got to be high standards and people must be held to account to achieve those standards.

I thank you for your time. See you on the campaign trail.


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