In Rare Talk of War Casualties, Bush Says 30,000 Iraqis Killed
President Bush said Monday that the war in Iraq had claimed the lives of 30,000 Iraqi citizens in addition to 2,140 U.S. troops, but that the establishment of a durable democracy there would ultimately justify the sacrifice.
Citing America’s own difficult transition to self-rule as a precedent, Bush said that Thursday’s parliamentary elections in Iraq were the next milestone in a transformation that would help contain global terrorism and encourage democratic reforms.
“The year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom,” Bush told the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, a nonpartisan educational group.
In a departure from his usual practice, Bush ended his remarks with an unscripted question-and-answer session with audience members. The first question came from a woman who asked Bush how many Iraqis had been killed since the U.S.-led coalition seized control of the country more than two years ago.
“How many Iraqis have died in this war?” Bush responded. “I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We’ve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.”
It was the first time Bush had discussed publicly the total casualty count in Iraq. White House officials later said the 30,000 figure was not an official U.S. tally, but the best estimate available based on media reports. It appeared to be in line with some previously published estimates by independent monitors.
The independent group Iraq Body Count, for example, estimates the death toll at between 27,383 and 30,892, based on its survey of media, the Red Cross and other sources.
Bush said more would die before the United States could withdraw its troops from Iraq, but he said he remained convinced that his decision to wage war was right and that bringing the troops home now would be a mistake. Bush traveled to the birthplace of America’s government to deliver the third of four major addresses designed to shore up public support before Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
The White House has launched an offensive to justify Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein’s government in March 2003, and his refusal to withdraw U.S. troops before a new government is established and Iraqi security forces are able to contain the insurgency on their own.
Opinion polls indicate that public support for the war is flagging. Bush’s approval rating has fallen sharply in recent months amid concern about the administration’s rationale for the offensive and the indefinite timetable for U.S. military engagement. However, a recent AP-Ipsos poll found that Bush’s approval rating had risen to 42% in early December, its highest level since summer.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam veteran and military booster, held a press conference following Bush’s speech to explain why he had become convinced the United States should withdraw from Iraq within six months.
Murtha said most of the insurgents were Iraqis who regarded the United States as the enemy. “There’s no way we can win a war when you’ve lost not only the hearts and minds of the people, [but] when you’ve become your own enemy,” Murtha said.
“A substantial and continuing reduction of America’s military presence throughout 2006 is in order,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in response to Bush’s speech. “If America wants a new Iraqi government to succeed, we need to let Iraqis take responsibility for their own future.”
Although Bush has resisted growing pressure to set a schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces, the administration has signaled its intent to reduce the number of troops deployed in Iraq next year.
Bush, who spoke at a downtown hotel blocks from the Liberty Bell, which rang to announce the first reading of the Declaration of Independence, said Iraq’s transition was not unlike America’s passage from colonial rule to constitutional democracy.
The years that passed between the end of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of a permanent federal government were chaotic, Bush said, and included an attempted military coup, an assault on Congress, rejection of the Articles of Confederation and years of contentious debate over the terms of the Constitution.
“No nation in history has made the transition to democracy without facing challenges, setbacks and false starts,” the president said.
In two recent speeches, Bush outlined military efforts to train Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for the nation’s security and the steps taken to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and stabilize its economy. He plans to give a speech Wednesday, the eve of the elections, summarizing the administration’s strategy for achieving “total victory” in Iraq.
Iraq’s transition began in June 2004, when the coalition authority, headed by U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, transferred sovereignty to Iraqi authorities. In January 2005, more than 8 million Iraqis defied insurgents’ threats and went to the polls to elect a transitional national assembly. Nearly 10 million participated in an October referendum to approve a new constitution.
Iraq’s Sunni population, which dominated the government under Saddam Hussein’s rule, largely boycotted the January election and refused to endorse the constitution, which was backed by Iraq’s two other key ethnic groups, the Shiites and the Kurds.
All the while, insurgent forces have continued their campaign of terror in an effort to derail the transition to democracy and drive U.S. forces out of Iraq.