President Bush strongly defended the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and his own pre-September-11 efforts to combat terrorism during a prime-time press conference Tuesday.
The president also indicated that he would deploy more U.S. troops to quell unrest in Iraq, if necessary.
Appearing somber, composed and committed, Bush sought to portray the current conflict in Iraq as an important front in a global war on terrorism. "Now is the time and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world," he said during an 18-minute opening statement. "We must not waver."
But Bush acknowledged the last two weeks of violence in Iraq had proven traumatic both to the American public and to him personally.
"Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens. I don't," Bush said in response to a question. "It's a tough time for the American people to see that. It's gut-wrenching. One of my hardest parts of my job is to console the family members who've lost their lives."
The president said he was committed to "stay the course" in Iraq. The country would eventually serve as a model of democracy throughout the Arab world, he added.
Bush reiterated his administration's hard-line policies toward insurgents in Iraq, promising that U.S. troops would bring radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to justice. Shiite supporters of al-Sadr are believed to be responsible for many of the attacks on U.S. troops and the kidnappings of other foreign nationals in recent weeks.
Employing some of the most explicit language since U.S. troops arrived in Iraq, the president cautioned that their mission there could require further sacrifice. "Our work may become more difficult before it is finished," he said. "No one can predict all the hazards that lie ahead or the cost that they will bring."
And as he has in the past, the president made clear that he believes there is a spiritual justification for the U.S. military mission in Iraq. "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."
Despite the rising tide of violence against U.S. troops and contract workers in Iraq, most of the country's citizens are grateful Saddam Hussein has been removed from power, the president said. Still, Bush acknowledged, he understands that Iraqis don't welcome an indefinite U.S. presence in their country.
"They're not happy they're occupied," he said. "I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either."
Recent reports suggest that General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, is requesting that two new brigades be deployed to Iraq. That could mean an additional 5,000 to 10,000 troops on top of the 135,000 already stationed there.
On Tuesday, Bush suggested he would order the troops. "If that's what [General Abizaid] wants, that's what he gets," the president said.
Reporters questioned Bush about the recently declassified August 6, 2001 presidential daily brief that warned Osama bin Laden was targeting the U.S. for attack. The president said the document had been created at his request because he was increasingly concerned about a terrorist strike on the U.S. But he said the two-page memo was little more than a rehash of previous information about al Qaeda's goals and did not provide actionable information. The document explicitly mentioned that the group was interested in hijacking airplanes within the U.S.
"I've stepped back and I've asked myself a lot, is there anything we could have done to stop the attacks?" the president said. "And the answer is that had I had any inkling whatsoever that the people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to save the country, just like we're working hard to prevent a further attack."
The president appeared stumped when he was pressed by a reporter to name the biggest mistake he has made since taking office.
"I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way or that way," Bush said. "You know, I just ... I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer. But it hasn't yet."
The president then repeated that he had no regrets about U.S. military operations in Iraq or in Afghanistan two years ago.
Bush declined to provide a direct answer to a reporter seeking to know why he has insisted on appearing alongside Vice President Dick Cheney before the panel investigating the events leading up to the attacks on 9-11. The panel had requested that each appear separately.
For his part, Bush's Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, provided a few additional details Tuesday about what he would do in Iraq if elected president. In an op-ed article published in Tuesday's edition of The Washington Post, Kerry advocated a greater role for the United Nations in Iraq.
"Moving forward, the administration must make the United Nations a full partner responsible for developing Iraq's transition to a new constitution and government," wrote Kerry, the Democrats' presumptive nominee.
Kerry said the U.N. should take the lead political role while the U.S. continues to serve as the military heavy in the country. Like Bush, Kerry said he supports upping the number of U.S. forces in Iraq if necessary.
"If our military commanders request more troops, we should deploy them," he wrote. "Progress is not possible in Iraq if people lack the security to go about the business of daily life."
For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out Choose or Lose.