With public support for his handling of events in Iraq melting, President Bush restated his case for toughing it out in the region during a televised address Monday night.
In a 33-minute speech to military leaders at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania (a venue that provided a particularly supportive audience), the president said coming weeks would bring further American sacrifice, and he offered a broad overview of how to establish a free, democratic Iraq. Bush also pledged to raze the notorious Baghdad prison where Saddam Hussein loyalists and U.S. troops have carried out atrocities.
As he has in the past, the president argued that Iraq is a key battleground in a broader, global effort to fight terrorism. He cited the recently released video of 26-year-old Pennsylvania native Nicholas Berg being decapitated by unidentified captors inside Iraq.
"We suspect that the man with the knife was an al Qaeda associate named Zarqawi," Bush said. "He and other terrorists know that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror, and we must understand that as well."
"The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory and a cause for killers to rejoice. It would also embolden the terrorists, leading to more bombings, more beheadings and more murders of the innocent around the world."
The president outlined five broad goals the U.S. must achieve in coming months in Iraq.
"We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government; help establish security; continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure; encourage more international support; and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people," he said.
Bush's remarks come just 37 days before the scheduled transfer of power from the current U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, a date that has been questioned by some due to the apparent lack of stability in the country. Under the guidance of that government and a new constitution, elections will be held in Iraq by the end of next year, Bush stated.
The president said U.S. troops will remain at their current levels in the region for the foreseeable future and gave no timetable for their withdrawal. In the process, he offered a rare acknowledgement that not everything has gone according to plan in Iraq.
"Our commanders had estimated that a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point in the conflict," he said. "Given the recent increase in violence, we will maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary."
Those troops will continue to operate under the direct supervision of a U.S. commander "as a part of a multinational force authorized by the United Nations," he said.
Bush indicated that he expects the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, to play a central role in the establishment of an interim government there. Earlier Monday, the U.S. and Britain submitted a resolution to the United Nations Security Council expressing support for Brahimi's efforts. The resolution also gives U.S. and British forces a free hand to act independently inside Iraq if they choose.
The president's remarks came on the heels of three weeks of hearings and recriminations over photographs portraying the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. forces inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. That is the same facility where loyalists to Saddam Hussein tortured and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqis during his rule.
"Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values," said the president, stumbling noticeably over the pronunciation of the name of the prison. "America will fund the construction of a modern maximum-security prison."
The president's speech was the first in a series of addresses he plans to deliver each week leading up to the June 30 handover. His remarks came on the same day two national polls showed support for his presidency and the occupation slipping to all-time lows.
A CBS News survey revealed that just 34 percent of Americans approve of the job the president has done in handling the war in Iraq, down from 39 percent two weeks ago and 72 percent a year ago.
Overall approval for the job Bush is doing as president sank to 41 percent from 44 percent two weeks ago. A year ago, Bush enjoyed the support of 64 percent of Americans.
A presidential approval of below 50 percent is believed to indicate an incumbent's vulnerability. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Bush remains neck and neck with his prospective opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The two are tied at 46 percent, with independent Ralph Nader the choice of 4 percent, according to an ABC News/ Washington Post poll released Monday.