WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday described the elections in Iraq this weekend as "a grand moment in Iraqi history" and part of a global march toward freedom. But he also acknowledged that Iraqis had not yet taken the initiative in defending their country against insurgents and might even doubt Washington's will to prevail.
Mr. Bush's assessment at a hastily called 40-minute news conference came on an especially deadly day of the Iraq war for American forces. A Marine helicopter crash took 31 lives, and six other troops died in separate incidents.
"The story Wednesday is going to be very discouraging to the American people," Mr. Bush said.
Several questioners noted Democratic criticisms of his Iraq policy leveled during Condoleezza Rice's Senate confirmation proceedings for secretary of state. Mr. Bush said he thought such statements could leave the Iraqi people "wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as a democracy evolves."
Still, Mr. Bush said ultimate success or failure lay with a new generation of Iraqi leaders.
"This problem will eventually be solved when the Iraqis take the initiative, and the Iraqi people see Iraqi soldiers willing to defend them," he said. "And the American people, when they see the Iraqis step up and begin to fight, will see progress being made toward an objective which will make this world a better place."
The administration is concerned that an upsurge of violence in the wake of the Iraqi elections could quickly fuel a demand for a withdrawal from Iraq.
Nearly every day in Washington, there is a seminar, forum, or news conference on Iraq and what would constitute a workable exit strategy, particularly if a heavy increase in violence breaks out in the aftermath of the election.
Mr. Bush would not say what percentage for turnout would make the vote Sunday a success.
"The fact that they're voting in itself is successful," he said, adding that he's impressed with the bravery of Iraqis. "I anticipate a grand moment in Iraqi history."
With 14 million of the 25 million Iraqis eligible to vote, Mr. Bush said he expects that "a lot" will vote. "Surveys show that the vast majority of people do want to participate in democracy, and some are feeling intimidated. I urge all people to vote. I urge people to defy these terrorists."
Mr. Bush used much of the news conference to explain - but not always to reinforce - arguments he made in his inaugural address, which appeared to put the United States on an aggressive course of promoting liberty around the world. Asked whether he meant he would make advances in personal liberty the main measure of relations with nations like Russia, China, or Saudi Arabia, the President stopped well short of saying he would put the leaders of those nations on notice that freedom would be the main measure of their relationship with Washington.
"I don't think foreign policy is an either-or proposition," Mr. Bush said. "I think it is possible, when you're a nation like the United States, to be able to achieve both objectives."
For example, he said, he would work with China to disarm North Korea even while pressing Beijing to allow free speech and democracy to flower within its own borders.
In meetings with Chinese leaders, he said, "I will constantly remind them of the benefits of a society that honors their people and respects human rights and human dignity."
He noted that in the past, he had brought up the repression of Tibet and China's efforts to suppress Catholicism and said that he would remind President Vladimir Putin of Russia that "if he intends to continue to look West, we in the West believe in Western values."
But President Bush, like aides who have scrambled to explain his speech last Thursday, seemed to signal that he would be patient with countries that failed to liberalize.
"There won't be instant democracy," he said, adding later, "That's why I said we're talking about the work of generations."
The Blade's Washington Bureau Chief Ann McFeatters contributed to this report.