WASHINGTON - President Bush concluded his series of four speeches in advance of today's parliamentary elections in Iraq by warning that forging a new democracy there will require time and patience and by admitting that he had wrong intelligence about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction.
In a forceful speech aimed at persuading Americans their soldiers must stay in Iraq, Mr. Bush insisted the United States will stay until Iraq is an established democracy and until its security forces are competent enough to keep the country from becoming a "safe haven" for terrorists.
He said today's elections are a "watershed moment in the story of freedom."
The White House strategy for defending the war has shifted subtly over the past month. In his recent speeches, Mr. Bush has admitted mistakes were made and insists new tactics are working to defeat insurgents and rebuild Iraq.
Yesterday, he said the main rationale that the administration once presented for going to war - that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction - was wrong.
But he said even knowing that, he would still make the decision to go to war because after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he decided this country must no longer wait for a threat to become immediate.
More than 2 1/2 years after launching an invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush conceded, "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As President, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. And I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities. And we're doing just that."
Mr. Bush spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, located in the cavernous Ronald Reagan International Trade Center near the White House. He specifically saluted Lee Hamilton, president of the Wilson Center, a former Democratic congressman and vice chairman of the panel that just criticized his administration for allegedly failing to fix some of the security lapses that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Bush said that because of those attacks, U.S. policy had to change to include pre-emptive attacks.
He said that on Sept. 11, not one U.S. soldier was in Iraq, so that terrorists who say they only want the United States out of the Middle East are lying.
As is now his custom, Mr. Bush did not mention Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who planned the Sept. 11 attacks.
He instead concentrated on Saddam Hussein, saying the former Iraqi leader had used the U.N. oil for food program to gather money illegally to be used to buy weapons of mass destruction as soon as the world stopped watching him.
"Saddam was a threat - and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush noted that after a new National Assembly is elected, Iraq will have met the four milestones set for its transition to constitutional democracy: transfer of sovereignty, elections for a transitional government, adoption of a constitution, and elections for a new permanent government.
A new poll of 1,502 Americans' views on the war, done this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, found that 56 percent said they believe progress is being made toward establishing democracy in Iraq but 53 percent said that the United States is not doing well in reducing civilian casualties.
Again, Mr. Bush harshly criticized some in Washington, such as Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.), who are calling for an immediate withdrawal, not just a phased pullout of about 30,000 soldiers next year.
There are about 160,000 American soldiers in Iraq. Mr. Bush said that "cutting and running" would be the wrong message to Iraqis, to the terrorists, to U.S. soldiers, and to the region.
He said, for the first time, that a free Iraq would inspire people in Syria and Iran to demand democracy.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with either country. Mr. Bush noted that without Iraq, there is no constitutional democracy in the Arab world.
He said that he is concerned Americans may think today's elections in Iraq mean the United States can pull out.
Although sovereignty was transferred to Iraq a year and a half ago, Mr. Bush warned that today is just the start of building a democratic, constitutionally elected government.
He said elections will extend into early January and that it will take time to know who won.
But he expressed optimism that "millions" of Iraqis will participate, including Sunnis who boycotted last January's election for leaders of an interim government.
About 15 million Iraqis are eligible to vote for legislators to hold office for four years. But U.S. soldiers will not pull out until there is "complete victory" in Iraq, Mr. Bush emphasized, repeating a favorite phrase.
He says that will happen when Iraq is free, independent, democratic, and able to defend itself. It would be a bad mistake to speculate on when that might be or set an "artificial deadline," he said.
Mr. Bush said that mistakes in Iraq have been corrected. "We have adapted our tactics. We have fixed what was not working. We have listened to those who know best - our military commanders and the Iraqi people."
A number of anti-war Democrats spoke out in protest yesterday.
A letter from 41 senators complained that Mr. Bush still has not set "benchmarks" for success or demanded a constitution that protects minorities and women. They wrote that they are worried that without such firm pressure from Washington, the minority Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds will be unable to resolve their differences and live together.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.) noted the senators asked Mr. Bush to lay out a "serious strategy for victory in Iraq but that he "declined."
The senator called the administration "devious" in preparing for war.
He said, "There was no reason for America to go to war when we did, the way we did, and for the false reasons we were given . The President should have taken a hard and comprehensive look at the intelligence, rather than building a case for war based on cherry-picked intelligence. It's not enough to say the intelligence was wrong."
Mr. Murtha, a strong supporter of the military, again said that the presence of American soldiers in Iraq is doing more harm than good because they are seen as an occupying force.
He also said, "The Army is broken," with glaring shortages of manpower and equipment, and needs time to rebuild, not engage in nation-building, a mission it's not equipped to do.
Mr. Bush countered that critics have made "irresponsible charges" against his administration, accusing it of going to war for oil or Israel and misleading the American people and manipulating intelligence.
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