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And I'm Melissa Block.
President Bush responded to his critics today with a speech at the US Naval Academy. He laid out what he called a clear and comprehensive strategy to win the war in Iraq. The president said that Iraqi troops are increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the insurgency, and that as they become more capable, the US will be able to bring troops home. But as he has in the past, Mr. Bush rejected calls for a timetable for withdrawal. We'll have some analysis of today's speech in a few minutes. First, our coverage begins with NPR's Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON reporting:
President Bush's speech at the Naval Academy today had two goals: to lay out in more detail how he plans to win the war in Iraq, and to answer critics who say he either has no strategy to win the war or that he's incapable of changing course.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our strategy in Iraq is clear. Our tactics are flexible and dynamic. We have changed them as conditions required, and they are bringing us victory against a brutal enemy.
LIASSON: The president said that he wanted Americans to have a clear understanding of his strategy, how his administration defines victory and what it's doing to achieve it. To that end, the White House released a 35-page document entitled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. It's a compilation of the administration's goals for Iraq's military, political and economic development. Responding to critics who've asked for a franker assessment of the situation in Iraq, the president acknowledged that there had been setbacks in developing a capable Iraqi security force. But he said the US adjusted its approach and is now achieving success.
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.
LIASSON: The president cited specific examples where Iraqi forces have been able to achieve success on their own, and he quoted US and Iraqi commanders testifying to the improvements in their abilities. Mr. Bush said that more than 120 army and police combat battalions are fighting insurgents, and that 40 of those are taking the lead in the fight. Another 80, he said, are fighting side by side with the Americans.
Pres. BUSH: And as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down. And when our mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, our troops will return home to a proud nation.
LIASSON: But, the president added...
Pres. BUSH: These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.
LIASSON: Public dissatisfaction with the president's handling of Iraq has contributed to the drop in his approval ratings to their lowest levels ever. Increasingly, the debate about Iraq has focused on exactly how and when to bring the US troops home. House Democrat John Murtha, who's well respected on military matters, has called for a quick withdrawal, and today Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed his position. Some Democrats in the Senate have called for a withdrawal timetable based on certain conditions. Today, the president tried to regain control of the debate about Iraq by defining it as a choice between withdrawal and victory.
Pres. BUSH: Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a message across the world that America is weak and an unreliable ally. Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America. 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 cheering and applause)
LIASSON: Even before the president's speech was over, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, issued a statement saying Mr. Bush once again missed an opportunity to lay out a strategy that would bring our troops safely home. And Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who ran against President Bush in the 2004 election, said this.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Our own generals are telling the president that our presence in large numbers is part of the problem, and that you have to begin to reduce that. The president did not acknowledge that today, but gave us the same talk about simply staying as long as it takes to get them to stand up.
LIASSON: The president will continue his efforts to rebuild public confidence with three more speeches before December 15th, the day Iraqis go to the polls to elect a long-term government. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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