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Bush Steadfast On Iraq Despite Criticism

U.S. President George W. Bush (file photo) (epa) WASHINGTON, October 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush today expressed dissatisfaction with developments in the Iraq war, citing the heavy casualties suffered by both Iraqis and Americans.

But he told a White House press conference that he's optimistic that what he called the "power of freedom" will ultimately defeat the "ideology of hate." And he insisted that the United States will remain in Iraq until the war is won.

In assessing the war effort, Bush talked about the violence inflicted on Iraqi civilians and acknowledged that 93 U.S. troops and more than 300 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed so far this month.

"The ultimate accountability...rests with me," Bush said.

'Not Satisfied'

"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," Bush said. "I'm not satisfied either."

Bush said the war is a clash of two ideologies -- one espoused by the insurgents in Iraq and the other held by Americans.

"My view is, the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done, and I am confident we can succeed in the broader war on terror, this ideological conflict," he said. "I am confident because I believe the power of liberty will defeat the ideology of hate every time, if given a chance."

Opponents of Bush's open-ended war strategy have called on him to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces as a way to encourage the Iraqis to take over security responsibilities in their own country.

On October 24, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, and General William Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, spoke about their own timetable -- saying they believe the year-old Iraqi government will be able to begin leading the fight within 12 to 18 months.

No Timetables

Bush didn't disagree, but -- as he has many times in the past -- he rejected the idea of a rigid timetable. Rather, he said he and his military commanders are focusing on benchmarks: indications of the Iraqi government's ability to take over security operations.

A wounded Iraqi in Ba'qubah on October 19 (epa)

"What we are asking [Iraqi leaders] to do -- is to say, 'When do you think you are going to get this done? When can you get [that] done?' -- so that people, themselves, in Iraq can see that the government is moving forward with a reconciliation plan and plans to necessary to unify this government," Bush said. "That is substantially different...from people saying, 'We want a time certain to get out of Iraq.' As a matter of fact, the benchmarks will make it more likely we win. Withdrawing on an artificial timetable means we lose."

One reporter asked Bush about accountability for the problems that the United States is facing in Iraq and whether he blamed U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As he has before, the president defended Rumsfeld and said the ultimate responsibility rests with himself.

"The ultimate accountability...rests with me," Bush responded. "You're asking about accountability. It rests right here. That's what the 2004 [presidential election] campaign was about. If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president. I believe our generals are doing the job I asked them to do. They are competent, smart capable men and women, and this country owes them a lot of gratitude and support."

Bush said he hoped two of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, would help end the sectarian violence in Iraq. But he ruled out any direct talks with Tehran as long as it pursues what many suspect is a nuclear weapons program.

For years, Iran has urged Washington to join in direct negotiations without success. But today Bush repeated his administration's position that if Tehran verifiably ends the nuclear program, talks could begin.

No Direct Talks With North Korea

On a parallel subject, one questioner asked about North Korea's warning to South Korea against taking part in international sanctions imposed against the North for its recent announcement that it had tested an atomic bomb.

Bush signaled that he's not concerned about that warning.

"In my judgment, what [North Korean leader Kim Jong Il] is doing is testing the will of the five countries that are working together to convince him that there is a better way forward for his people," Bush said. "I don't know the exact words he used, but this is not the first time that he has issued threats, and our goal is to continue to remind our partners that when we work together, we are more likely to be able to achieve the objective, which is to solve this problem diplomatically."

The U.S. leader was referring to the five nations, including the United States, that have been holding intermittent negotiations with North Korea in efforts to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. They are China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

But Bush again ruled out direct, one-on-one talks between his administration and the North Korean government.

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.