WASHINGTON — President Bush said Tuesday a U.S. military pullout from Iraq would be a terrible mistake, beginning a new push defending his embattled war policy. His Pentagon chief said, "Quitting is not an exit strategy."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said of the Iraqis, "They know that they're the ones that are going to have to grab that country. And it's time."
The administration is under pressure to convince increasingly skeptical Americans that the president's strategy for Iraq is headed in the right direction. The president is to give a speech on the subject today at the Naval Academy.
The unrelenting violence that continues to claim American lives has contributed to a drop in Bush's popularity, to its lowest level yet, and to growing doubts about the war. It also has led to a debate in Congress about when the 160,000 U.S. troops there should begin to come home.
The GOP-controlled Senate voted 79-19 this month to urge the president to outline a strategy for "the successful completion of the mission." Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., attracted attention with his call for a withdrawal within six months.
The administration has responded by counseling patience while also signaling it is planning for a way out. Bush, speaking to reporters from El Paso, Texas, rejected any immediate withdrawal in unusually personal terms.
"I want to defeat the terrorists. And I want our troops to come home," the president said. "But I don't want them to come home without having achieved victory."
His speech today at Annapolis, Md., was to focus on progress in the effort to train an Iraqi security force and allow the gradual exit of U.S. military forces.
Later speeches over the next two weeks are to emphasize the strides being made in establishing a stable, democratic government and creating a viable economy.
In June, Bush delivered a prime-time address from Fort Bragg, N.C., on the first anniversary of Iraq's sovereignty. Later in the summer, the president tried to blunt the message of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who camped outside his Texas ranch. He returned to the war theme on Veterans Day with a speech accusing congressional Democrats of being "deeply irresponsible" in their criticism of the way he portrayed intelligence about Iraq before the war.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former Army Ranger who visited Iraq last month, said the president must give "an honest assessment" pointing out not only the successes in Iraq, but the remaining pitfalls.
"We have to go forward with a plan, not just slogans," he said.
On Tuesday, Rumsfeld gave a preview of the administration's argument that Iraqi security forces are improving. He said about 29 military bases have been turned over to Iraqi control; the Iraqi army has seven division and 31 brigade headquarters in operation, compared with none 16 months ago; the number of Iraqi army battalions "in the fight" is now 95, compared with five 15 months ago, and there are now over 212,000 trained and equipped security forces, compared with 96,000 last year.
Rumsfeld noted changes in several areas once known for strife. Baghdad's infamously dangerous airport road is seeing a sharp decline in attacks under the control of an Iraqi police battalion. The city's once-violent Haifa Street is largely peaceful under the control of an Iraqi army battalion. And the Shiite areas of Najaf, Karbala and Sadr City, the scene of a number of battles last year, are now largely peaceful, Rumsfeld said.
"The people who've been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong," he said. "They're doing a darn good job, and they're doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month."
Rumsfeld said leaving Iraq before the country is completely ready to secure itself would only invite more terrorist violence and put Americans at greater risk.
His words echoed the president, who promised the judgment of military commanders, not political considerations, would determine troop levels.
"People don't want me making decisions based on politics," Bush said. "They want me making decisions based on the recommendations of our generals on the ground. And that's exactly who I'll be listening to."
Reed, designated by the Democrats to rebut the president, sounded themes strikingly similar to those coming out of the administration. He said that an immediate pullout would be unwise, that troop levels must be determined by generals, that some progress is being made in training Iraqis and that transforming Iraq into a democracy is a huge task that could take some time.
But he said Bush must present a more realistic account.
"Those speeches over the last two years have left a big gap between the American public — what they hear from the president and what they see every day on television and read in the newspapers, and that gap has to close," he said. "This has got to be unvarnished."
Developments in Iraq
Al-Jazeera broadcast video of four Western peace activists held hostage by a previously unknown group, part of a new wave of kidnappings which Iraqi police fear is aimed at disrupting next month's elections. (See story on A1.)
Two American soldiers were killed when their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said.
A leading Sunni cleric was assassinated as he left a mosque in Fallujah, his brother said. Sheik Hamza Abbas, head of the Religious Scholars Council in Fallujah and the mufti of Anbar province, had made contacts with the Americans during the siege of the city last year and had been denounced as a collaborator, residents said.
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who manages the training of Iraqi security forces, told National Public Radio that 212,000 police and soldiers have been trained and equipped, although he suggested that more needs to be done.
A suicide car bomber killed eight Iraqi soldiers and wounded five more when he drove into an army patrol in Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, police said.