Against a backdrop of widespread violence in Iraq, President Bush insisted Tuesday night that U.S. troops were making progress in restoring order to the country and that "we must not waver" from plans to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30.
In a rare evening news conference -- the longest of his presidency -- Bush acknowledged that "it's been a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people."
But he acknowledged no errors in his handling of the war in Iraq or failings related to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
"Weeks such as we've had in Iraq make some doubt whether or not we're making progress. I understand that," Bush told reporters in the ornate East Room of the White House. "It was a tough, tough period. But we are making progress. And my message today to those in Iraq is, we'll stay the course. We'll complete the job."
He stressed that resolving the Iraqi conflict successfully was essential to ensuring the security of the United States -- a point he said he would emphasize to voters in the presidential election campaign. Bush also said he would provide whatever military resources were needed to bring democracy to Iraq, including sending more troops.
"The defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere, and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people," he said. "Now is the time and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver."
Bush said his administration had taken important steps toward preventing future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, but he acknowledged that "there are some things I wish we'd have done." He said he realized that before Sept. 11, "the country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us. And it's -- it didn't take me long to put us on a war footing, and we've been on a war ever since."
Bush scheduled the news conference, a forum he is known to dislike, as recent opinion polls suggested declining public support for his Iraq policy. It was his first news conference since December and his first in prime time in more than a year.
The president displayed little of the jocularity that often marks his encounters with the press. Instead, he opened with a somber, 17-minute speech in which he argued that recent violence was a temporary setback in a noble mission to bring peace and freedom to Iraq.
The insurgents "want to run us out of Iraq and destroy the democratic hopes of the Iraqi people," Bush said. "The violence we have seen is a power grab by these extreme and ruthless elements. It's not a civil war. It's not a popular uprising."
At least three times, Bush sidestepped questions asking whether he would accept responsibility or apologize for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the closest he came to an apology, he said, "There are some things I wish we'd have done when I look back. I mean, hindsight's easy."
At one point, he acknowledged the stress he was under during the news conference, noting "all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer" to an unexpected question to name his biggest mistake since Sept. 11. "I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it," Bush said.
He later added: "I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not quick -- as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
With less than eight months to go before the November election, Republican strategists have watched with grave concern as Bush's poll numbers have dropped in recent weeks, due largely to the chaos in Iraq, giving presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry a new opening on the issue.
A Gallup survey earlier this month showed that less than 45% of Americans supported Bush's handling of the war. At the same time, a new Newsweek poll suggested that Kerry had opened up a relatively wide lead -- 7 points -- over Bush.
Kerry accused Bush on Tuesday of failing to provide a clear plan for bringing peace to Iraq.
"Unfortunately, he offered no specific plan whatsoever," Kerry said in a statement after the news conference. "Rather, the president made it clear that he intends to stubbornly cling to the same policy that has led to a greater risk to American troops and a steadily higher cost to the American taxpayer."
The political context of the debate over Iraq surfaced near the end of the news conference, when a reporter asked if Bush was willing to lose the election because of the Iraq war.
The president replied: "I don't plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that I've got a plan to win the war on terror, and I believe they'll stay with me. They understand the stakes."
Those stakes, Bush said repeatedly, are "an historic opportunity to change the world."
Bush ended the news conference, which was one hour and one minute long, by saying that he looked forward to the debate on the Iraq war in the coming campaign. He described the choices facing the country as black and white.
"I look forward to helping -- for the American people to hear, you know, what is the proper use of American power? Do we have an obligation to lead or should we shirk responsibility? That's how I -- that's how I view this debate," he said.
Events of the last few weeks, especially the death and mutilation of four U.S. contractors in Fallouja and a broad, violent uprising instigated by a militant cleric have put Bush's policies in Iraq under scrutiny.
"Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens. I don't. It's a tough time for the American people to see that," Bush said.
But he insisted that failing to stay the course would allow terrorism to flourish.
"One of the things that's very important ... is to never allow our youngsters to die in vain," Bush said. "Withdrawing from the battlefield of Iraq would be just that. And it's not going to happen under my watch."
Bush insisted that his administration will press ahead with its plan to turn power over to the Iraqis by June 30, a date critics say has more to do with the U.S. election cycle than with conditions on the ground in Iraq.
Bush said his administration was now "working closely" with United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to develop an interim government and set dates for elections in Iraq.
Pressed on how the administration would be able to install a new government with fewer than 80 days until the June 30 deadline, Bush insisted: "We'll find that out soon. That's what Mr. Brahimi is doing."
"On June 30, Iraqi sovereignty will be placed back in Iraqi hands," Bush declared.
He said it was important to meet that deadline to demonstrate that the United States does not plan an indefinite occupation.
"We will not step back from our pledge," he said.
Bush also said there would be elections for a national assembly, which is to draft a constitution, no later than January. Iraqis will vote on the constitution in October 2005, followed by the election of a permanent government in December 2005, an event that "will mark the completion of Iraq's transition from dictatorship to freedom," he said.
Bush also signaled that the administration wanted to step up the involvement of Iraq's neighbors in its reconstruction. He said he was sending Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage to the Middle East "to discuss with these nations our common interest in a free and independent Iraq and how they can help achieve this goal."
Bush's confidence in his timetable was striking, coming on a day when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan again signaled his reluctance to involve the U.N. in Iraq and asserted the violence there could make it difficult to meet the June 30 deadline.
Bush said he would give U.S. military commanders the personnel needed to keep the peace before and after the handover of sovereignty.
If Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Central Command, "makes the recommendation, he'll get it," the president said.
Bush acknowledged that some Iraqi defense units had recently failed to challenge insurgents.
"I was disappointed in the performance of some of the troops," he said. "Some of the units performed brilliantly. Some of them didn't, and we need to find out why."
Bush rejected comparisons to the Vietnam War increasingly cited in recent days as U.S. forces have lost dozens of men and women.
"I think the analogy is false," he said. " I also happen to think that analogy ... sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy."
Bush's presentation got high marks from Republican supporters. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said Bush "showed himself to be a strong president, a resolute president, someone who is very strong in his convictions and who doesn't flip-flop."
But even some of those who praised Bush's appearance cautioned that he faced difficulties in reaching the public.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) gave Bush high marks for speaking forcefully but said "no speeches, nothing that anyone says, can be as attention-grabbing as a burning Humvee on television, which we've all been seeing plenty of. That's the image that has been placed before millions of American families."
Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the president struck the right tone when he could come up with no instance of having erred and declined to apologize to the American people for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"He was giving us a leadership statement on Iraq," Hunter said.
"That is not the right time for reporters to try to throw the president down on the analyst's couch and have him try to tell them about all of his failings. He has to spend his time giving a vision of the future for the country."
Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Mary Curtius, Paul Richter and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.