Bush: Iraq at a 'Moment of Choosing' After Bombing

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President Bush says the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra this week was an affront to all people of faith, but that Iraqis would rise above the clashes it has spawned. "This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people," he said, speaking to a meeting of the American Legion in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Washington, President Bush offered some of his thoughts on the situation in Iraq. He spoke at a hotel a few blocks from the White House to a gathering of veterans who belong to the American Legion. The president briefly mentioned the recent surge in violence, urging patience. He also pointed to the current difficulty in Iraq as a possible turning point. Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

The White House announced six days ago, before the bombing of the mosque in Samarra, that President Bush would be giving a war speech this morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all. Please be seated. Thanks for the warm welcome. Mr. Commander, thank you for letting me come by and visit with you about the subject of how to keep the peace and protect the United States of America.

GREENE: When he first came to the subject of Iraq, the president sounded some familiar themes. Under Saddam Hussein, he said, Iraq was a place where dissent was crushed and a centralized economy was mostly enriching a dictator.

President BUSH: And when Saddam Hussein's regime fled Baghdad, they left behind a country with few civic institutions in place to hold Iraqi society together.

GREENE: But the images of violence from Iraq this week show how hard it can be to hold that society together as hoped, and this brings the White House to a calculation it must make with each new wave of violence. Does the president talk about it and confront it, or does he stick to his message and insist that over the long term Iraq's moving in the right direction? Today, Mr. Bush decided to speak directly about Wednesday's attack on the Shiite's Golden Mosque, portraying the incident as a defining moment.

President BUSH: The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act of terror and the subsequent attacks on other mosques and holy sites in Iraq. We will do everything in our power to help the Iraqi government identify and bring to justice those responsible for the terrorist acts. This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people.

GREENE: And especially for its elected leaders. Mr. Bush is mindful that some Sunnis have walked away from talks to form a new government. He urged them and all parties to reach across political, religious and sectarian lines to find compromise. And he insisted that he remains hopeful.

President BUSH: We can expect the days, coming days, will be intense. Iraq remains a serious situation. But I'm optimistic, because the Iraqi people have spoken, and the Iraqi people made their intentions clear. In December, more than 11 million Iraqis sent a clear message to the world and to the terrorists. They want their freedom. They want their country to be a democracy.

GREENE: The president spoke just after convening his National Security Council to get an update on Iraq from military leaders. It may have been a fresher assessment than the one the Pentagon sent to Congress today. That written report said the insurgency is breaking apart, so much that the word insurgency may not apply anymore. That report was completed before the violence this week.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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