Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bush finally admits mistake, but with caveats

Bush takes blame for Iraq war on bad intelligence

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush took the blame on Wednesday for going to war in Iraq over faulty intelligence but said he was right to topple Saddam Hussein and urged Americans to be patient as Iraqis vote.

"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 am also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities and we're doing just that," he said.

But he said, "My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision" because he was deemed a threat and that regardless, "We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of a brutal dictator."

Bush's new admission was significant in that he rarely admits mistakes, although he has acknowledged failures in U.S. intelligence on Iraq before.

His administration touted Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a reason for going to war in March 2003, but such weapons were never found.

In an interview with Fox News to be aired on Wednesday night, Bush gave strong endorsements to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, both frequently accused by critics of pushing the war on false pretenses.

"He's done a heck of a job," Bush said of Rumsfeld, "and I have no intention of changing him." As for Cheney, "my respect for him has grown immensely," Bush said.

Bush's Iraq comments came in the last of a series of four speeches outlining his Iraq strategy and trying to bolster American support for the war, came a day ahead of an Iraqi election that will pave the way for formation of a permanent government.

Bush, facing both low popularity ratings and waning public support for the war, hopes a smooth election would help him build a sense of progress in Iraq, where more than 2,100 U.S. troops have died.

His comments quickly drew fire from 40 Senate Democrats and one independent who sent him a letter demanding he provide a plan that identifies "the remaining political, economic, and military benchmarks that must be met and a reasonable schedule to achieve them."

"The president's speech today failed to provide the American people with any insight into his strategy for completing the mission," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

The liberal group said it delivered petitions bearing 400,000 signatures to 248 district congressional offices, urging support for an exit strategy plan with a timeline to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.


Bush and other officials have talked of bringing home some troops in 2006 once commanders on the ground deem that Iraqi units are ready to take on greater responsibilities.

Bush asked for patience from Americans to give Iraqis time to form their new government after the election. After the vote, he said, there will be "days of uncertainty" and the winners may not be clear until the early part of January.

He reiterated his dismissal of Democratic calls for a phased U.S. pullout and accused Democrats who charge him with manipulating prewar intelligence of playing politics.

As part of an effort to have more contact with members of Congress who feel the administration makes decisions with little of their input, Bush joined several Democratic members of the House of Representatives for an Iraq briefing complete with U.S. commanders participating by videoconference.

New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel said Bush talked of a need to change tactics. "Frankly, I found it refreshing," he said afterward.

Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while Bush's Iraq speeches were better than some in the past, he still did not see a "total conversion from spin to leadership" and that Bush did not sufficiently explain past mistakes.

Top members of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees the defense budget said they heard the Pentagon would seek another $80 billion to $100 billion for the Iraq war next year, although they said the figure could change.

That would come on top of the $50 billion for the war Congress was expected to approve in the next few days.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Adam Entous and Vicki Allen)