Bush says Iraqis have paid a heavy price

President George Bush offered encouragement to war-weary Iraqis today but acknowledged they have paid a heavy price – 30,000 dead – as a result of the US-led invasion and its bloody aftermath.

President George Bush offered encouragement to war-weary Iraqis today but acknowledged they have paid a heavy price – 30,000 dead – as a result of the US-led invasion and its bloody aftermath.

As Iraqis began voting in parliamentary elections, Bush said that no country has formed a democracy without “challenges, setbacks and false starts.”

“There’s still a lot of difficult work to be done in Iraq,” the president said. “But thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people, 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 unexpectedly invited questions from the audience and immediately was asked about the number of Iraqi casualties in the war.

“I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis,” the president said. “We’ve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.”

White House counsellor Dan Bartlett said later that Bush’s estimate of the number of Iraqis killed was not an official figure but that the president was simply repeating public estimates reported in the media.

Another questioner challenged the administration’s linkage of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the Iraq war. Bush said that Saddam Hussein was a threat and he was widely believed to have weapons of mass destruction – a belief that later proved false.

“I made a tough decision,” Bush said.

“And knowing what I know today I’d make the decision again. Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country.”

The US government’s Arabic-language television service, Allure, carried Bush’s remarks live, but it was not shown on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya or any of the Iraqi television stations. Most Iraqis disapprove of the presence of US forces in their country, yet they are optimistic about Iraq’s future and their own personal lives, according to a new poll.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed oppose the presence of troops from the US and its coalition partners and less than half, 44%, say their country is better off now than it was before the war, according to an ABC News poll conducted with Time magazine and other media partners.

“Success will help the image of the US,” Bush said.

“Look, I recognise we got an image issue, particularly when you’ve got Arabic television stations – that are constantly just pounding America, saying ‘America is fighting Islam,’ ‘Americans can’t stand Muslims,’ ‘This is a war against a religion.”’

“We’ve got to, obviously, do a better job of reminding people that ours is not a nation that rejects religion. Ours is a nation that accepts people of all faiths, and that the great strength of America is the capacity for people to worship freely.

“It’s difficult,” the president said. “I mean, their propaganda machine is pretty darn intense, so we’re constantly sending out messages. We’re constantly trying to reassure people.”

The Pentagon has acknowledged paying Iraqi journalists and newspapers to print favourable articles. Bush also has appointed Karen Hughes, a long-time confidante, as US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Her mission is to reverse anti-American sentiment around the world.

Bush said he came to Philadelphia to speak about democracy in Iraq because this city was the birthplace of the US Constitution. Pennsylvania also is the home state of a leading Iraq war critic, Democratic Congressman John Murtha, who planned to speak on Bush’s heels and repeat his call to bring the troops home from a fight he says has become too violent and out of control.

“This week’s election won’t be perfect,” Bush said.

“Iraqis still have more difficult work ahead, and our coalition and a new Iraqi government will face many challenges,” he said.

Among challenges that the president said remain: ensuring Iraqi security, forming an inclusive government, encouraging Iraqi reconciliation and maintaining democracy.

“The past 2 1/2 years have been a period of difficult struggle in Iraq, yet they have also been a time of great hope and achievement for the Iraqi people,” Bush said.

“Just over 2 1/2 years ago, Iraq was in the grip of a cruel dictator who had invaded his neighbours, sponsored terrorists, pursued and used weapons of mass destruction, murdered his own people and, for more than a decade, defied the demands of the United Nations and the civilised world.

“Since then, the Iraqi people have assumed sovereignty over their country, held free elections, drafted a democratic constitution and approved that constitution in a nationwide referendum,” the president said.

Bush acknowledged that things in Iraq did not always go as planned. He said US officials have changed strategy when events on the ground warranted a different approach.

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