President George Bush is stepping up his defence of his Iraq policy as he faces declining public support for the war and a crucial test in Iraq with the October 15 constitutional referendum.
Aides said Bush would take on war critics directly in a speech on Iraq and the broader war on terrorism today before the National Endowment for Democracy.
Bush was briefed Wednesday on Iraq by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. David Petraeus and said he was pleased with the progress in the training of Iraqi troops.
“The Iraqis are showing more and more capability of taking the fight to the enemy,” the president said. “As they become more capable, we will be able to bring folks home.”
He did not offer a timetable.
Bush also said he expected insurgents to try to derail next week’s vote on a new constitution.
“We fully understand they intend to disrupt the constitutional process, or will try to do so, as well as stop the progress of democracy,” Bush said.
“Part of the way the Pentagon and the folks on the ground are going to deal with it is to stay on the offense, and that’s what’s taking place.”
Senate Democrats assailed the administration’s strategy in Iraq and prodded the president to change it. “We will not accept staying the course,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
In a letter to Bush, Senate Democrats said continuing along the same path in Iraq “could lead to a full-blown civil war.”
“He has to tell the American people what the plan is,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat.
As of Wednesday, at least 1,941 members of the US military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003. At least 1,513 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military’s numbers, including five military civilians.
The most recent poll showed only 37 per cent of Americans approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq, with 62 per cent disapproving.
Bush yesterday visited wounded troops at the Army’s Walter Reed hospital, which has received over 4,450 patients injured in Iraq. He visited 29 and presented eight Purple Hearts.
He said that every time he went to the hospital, due to close under a federal plan, he marvelled at the courage of soldier patients. “I asked for God’s blessing on them and their families as they recover,” Bush said.
Nearly 140,000 US troops are still in Iraq.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush, in today’s speech, “is going to be directly taking on some of those who argue that we should withdraw from the Middle East and those who suggest that taking the fight to the enemy only causes these radicals to launch attacks.”
The president intended to give Americans a newly-detailed description of the terrorists’ clearly thought-out strategy for dominating the world with their brand of Islam and continued attacks on democracy.
The president was to argue that the fight against them is not to be underestimated and can be compared to the lengthy previous battles against ideologies such as communism, McClellan said.