Bush Puts Iraqi War Dead at More Than 30,000

Speaking in Philadelphia, President Bush says more than 30,000 Iraqis have died so far in the war. The president's remarks followed the third in a series of speeches, in which he compared Iraq's fledgling democracy to the United States' own beginnings.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Philadelphia was the location today for President Bush's latest speech on the war in Iraq. It was the third in a series of addresses leading up to Thursday's elections there. We'll hear about how that vote is being viewed in Baghdad and in Iraqi Kurdistan in a few minutes. But, first, the president's remarks.

Mr. Bush spoke to the World Affairs Council, and in a break with recent practice, he took questions from the audience, which was not prescreened. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

As Iraq prepares to hold parliamentary elections this week amid violence and political uncertainty, the president used Philadelphia as a symbolic backdrop. His message was that America's founders didn't have it easy either when trying to erect their democracy.

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There were tensions between the mercantile North and the agricultural South that threatened to break apart our young republic. And there were British loyalists who were opposed to independence and had to be reconciled with America's new democracy. Our founders faced many difficult challenges. They made mistakes, they learned from their experiences, and they adjusted their approach.

GREENE: Mr. Bush then struck several of the themes from his last two speeches on Iraq. He said, `Violence continues to grab the headlines, and challenges remains. But,' he said, `the country has the potential to lay a foundation of democracy, not only for itself but for the whole Middle East.' The surprise came as he finished up.

(Soundbite of applause; speech)

Pres. BUSH: I got a little extra time on my hands, so I thought I might answer some questions.

GREENE: Taking questions, especially from people who aren't prescreened, has become a rare event for Mr. Bush. Newsweek magazine's cover this week is an illustration of Mr. Bush inside a bubble looking afraid. But today the president issued an invitation, and the first member of the audience to respond held nothing back.

(Soundbite of discussion)

Unidentified Woman #1: Since the inception of the Iraq War, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed, and by `Iraqis,' I include civilians, military police, insurgents, translators.

Pres. BUSH: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.

GREENE: The president took five questions; two were from stated supporters, one seemed down the middle, and two seemed to challenge his policies, like this one.

(Soundbite of discussion)

Unidentified Woman #2: I would like to know why you and others in your administration invoke 9/11 as justification for the invasion of Iraq...

Pres. BUSH: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...when no respected journalists or other Middle Eastern experts confirm that such a thing existed?

Pres. BUSH: Oh, I appreciate that. 9/11 changed my look on foreign policy.

GREENE: Mr. Bush went on to say that 9/11 `accentuated an existing threat from Iraq, one that many in the world have long recognized.'

(Soundbite of discussion)

Pres. BUSH: And I made a tough decision, 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: As he took questions, the president evinced the self-assurance he showed in his campaign for re-election last year and some of the offhand bantering of his news conferences.

(Soundbite of applause; discussion)

Pres. BUSH: Last question. I actually got something to do. You're paying me all this money. I'd better get back to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. BUSH: Hold on a second. Got a guy here.

Unidentified Man: Mr. President, I'm from The Phelps School. I'm a supporter of yours.

Pres. BUSH: Oops. That kind of prejudices your question.

GREENE: The question was whether the threat of terrorism on US soil had gone down since Iraq was invaded. Mr. Bush said he thinks the threat is less but that the key to keeping Americans safe is to win in Iraq.

Later, just across town, Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania said US troops were now the target in Iraq and that their mission there no longer made sense.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): The administration's current strategy, in my estimation, is inconsistent with the president's statement end of February when he said that we have no intention of dictating the precise form of Iraqis' government. The current strategy, invasion, is a continuation of an open-ended, nation-building commitment by the US military.

GREENE: Murtha said the best course would be to begin a drawing down of the troops after this week's elections and demonstrate the willingness of the US to return the country to Iraqi control. David Greene, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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