WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush made an unusually direct personal appeal to Americans on Sunday night not to give in to despair over Iraq, insisting "We are winning" despite a tougher-than-expected war.
Confronting American doubts about the war, Bush said in an Oval Office address he recognized that people wondered whether the U.S. mission had created more problems than it is solving.
"I do not expect you to support everything I do," Bush said in remarkably personal terms. "But tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair, and do not give up on this fight for freedom."
Bush, struggling with low approval ratings and wide public discontent with the rising U.S. death toll, pointed to Iraq”s election last Thursday as a sign of progress in the war, which is costing taxpayers $6 billion a month.
His rare Oval Office address was his fifth speech devoted to Iraq since Nov. 30, part of a fierce White House offensive to confront criticism of the war head on and try to keep Democratic calls for a phased troop pullout from gaining widespread public support.
It came as he faces questions about his decision to allow eavesdropping on Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.
In his remarks, Bush decried the "defeatism" of some of his political rivals, saying steady gains are being made.
"My fellow citizens: Not only can we win the war in Iraq — we are winning the war in Iraq," he declared.
Yet some Democrats said Bush”s message was incomplete. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was disappointed that Bush did not clearly urge Iraqis to make compromises necessary to amend their constitution and reach a political settlement.
"Our military leaders have long told us that only a broad-based political settlement among the Iraqis can defeat the insurgency," he said.
Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold said the task of U.S. troops was largely over in Iraq.
"What we need is a flexible timeline for redeploying our troops from Iraq so that we can focus on what should be our top priority — winning the global fight against terrorist networks that threaten the United States," he said.
Bush in his series of speeches has changed his tone from outright sunny optimism to a more candid assessment of Iraq, admitting that mistakes were made in the run-up to the war and that the road ahead is long.
Along those lines, Bush acknowledged the United States got off to a slow start in reconstruction efforts and in training Iraqi security forces, and that the work has been "more difficult than we expected."
In his first Oval Office address since military action commenced against Iraq in March 2003, Bush said he recognized that many Americans "have questions about the cost and direction of this war."
"I know that some of my decisions have led to terrible loss — and not one of those decisions has been taken lightly. I know this war is controversial. Yet being your president requires doing what I believe is right and accepting the consequences," Bush said.
He predicted "more testing and sacrifice before us," but said grim scenes of carnage on television prove only that the war is difficult.
"It does not mean that we are losing," he said.
SURPRISE VISIT TO IRAQ
Vice President Dick Cheney had a far more typically upbeat message during a surprise visit to Iraq, saying in an ABC News "Nightline" interview he believed Iraqis overwhelmingly think they are better off today than when Saddam Hussein ruled.
"I think the vast majority of them think of us as liberators," said Cheney, pointing to polls showing many Iraqis optimistic about their future.
Bush gave no ground to those critics like Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha who are demanding a quick U.S. troop drawdown.
He stuck to his position that U.S. troop reductions depend on progress in training Iraqi forces and on the democratic process.
"As these achievements come, it should require fewer American troops to accomplish our mission," he said.
Decisions on troop levels, he said, will depend on progress on the ground and advice from his commanders, "not based on artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington."
The U.S. commander in Iraq said U.S. forces there are likely to shrink from a current 150,000 to their pre-election total of 138,000 by early February.
"We can”t have an open-ended plan. That”s just a hope. That”s an illusion," Murtha, known for his hawkish views, told CNN earlier on Sunday.