Bush Vows to Press on to 'Victory' in Iraq

In a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, President Bush reaffirms a stay-the-course strategy for Iraq, defying critics who have called for immediate withdrawal of troops. The president emphasized progress in training an independent Iraqi military and re-emphasized his belief that Iraq is central to a larger war on terrorism.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The lead is Iraq. At the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, today, President Bush made a major speech on his strategy there. Speaking before the midshipmen, the president forcefully defended his administration's policy in Iraq, including maintaining high levels of US troops there.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHADWICK: The president's speech comes as polls indicate declining support for his policies. More than 2,100 US troops have died in Iraq; almost 16,000 more have been wounded. For more on the speech, we're joined by NPR defense corespondent John Hendren.

John, welcome to the program, and please summarize more of the speech, can you.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Sure. The president started out by describing who the insurgents were, and he divided them into three groups: Saddamists, that is people who had high positions in the previous regime who want to return to a sort of Baath Party-style government; terrorists were the second group, and he specifically named Abu Musab Zarqawi as the leader of that group; and rejectionists, and these are, as he described them, mostly Sunni Iraqis who are dissatisfied with their sort of fall from grace at a time when--from the time when that minority segment held special privileges that they no longer have.

CHADWICK: Another major theme of the president's speech was the progress made by Iraqi forces, and here's what he said about that.

Pres. BUSH: The facts are that Iraqi units are growing more independent and more capable. They are defending their new democracy with courage and determination. They're in the fight today, and they will be in the fight for freedom tomorrow.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHADWICK: Now Mr. Bush made a point of saying that there would be other themes of his strategy that he'd be talking about in the coming days, but he really wanted to talk about Iraqi security forces today, and he seemed very optimistic about the ability of those forces.

HENDREN: Right. He's expressing, I would say, the more optimistic point of view. You do get a more mixed point of view when you talk to US military officials who are engaged in the training, and they say that there is progress with these troops. But they do their job with a lot of support from US troops. Even those Iraqi units who are operating on their own have American forces to call for backup and for the kinds of special equipment that they don't have. So while what the president says is true, they're making progress, there are a lot of major concerns still with those Iraqi security forces.

CHADWICK: He went into a lot of detail about military preparedness. There had been this comment from the US commander over there, General George Casey, in September, testifying before a Senate panel. He said that there was one combat-ready battalion of Iraqi forces. This is only 700 men, and the president went into some detail about what that meant.

Pres. BUSH: Not every Iraqi unit has to meet this level of capability in order for the Iraqi security forces to take the lead in the fight against the enemy. As a matter of fact, there are some battalions from NATO militaries that would not be able to meet this standard.

HENDREN: What he's saying it means is that these guys are able to take over, in a way, sooner, in a way that would eventually relieve US forces of some of those duties. But he wouldn't set a timetable. We really don't have any more information than we had before on when US troops are going to pull out.

CHADWICK: He did say that there is--and he did indicate that the White House has released this 35-page plan called our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. He noted this at the White House Web site, whitehouse.gov, and there are more specifics there.

HENDREN: That's right. While there are specifics, the outline is still very, very general and it really falls along with the president's plan from 2003. And the bottom line is failure is not an option.

CHADWICK: NPR defense correspondent John Hendren, speaking with us from Washington about the president's speech.

John, thank you.

HENDREN: Thank you.

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