In an address to the nation, President Bush on Monday night called for demolishing Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison -- the scene of Saddam Hussein atrocities and the U.S. military's prisoner abuse -- as he vowed that the United States would succeed in turning Iraq from violence and chaos to democracy and peace.
Bush's pledge to destroy the notorious prison was the symbolic highlight of a speech designed to convince an increasingly restive public that improvement is coming to Iraq despite a recent wave of violence and an international scandal sparked by images of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. Worries about chaos in Iraq have jeopardized both public support for the occupation and Bush's reelection prospects, and Bush's speech was the start of a fresh administration effort to build public support.
"Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values," Bush said in the prime-time speech. Seeking to defuse an issue that has badly undermined U.S. standing in Iraq and the Middle East, he vowed that after building a new prison and receiving Iraqis' approval: "We will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison, as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning."
In the 33-minute address, delivered at the U.S. Army War College here, Bush disclosed few new details of the scheduled June 30 handover of limited sovereignty to Iraqis, declining to name the Iraqis who will take power or to clearly define the future U.S. military presence in Iraq. Instead, he used the speech to draw public attention to elements of the transition that were generally known, repackaging the U.S. policy as a five-step plan.
Bush's speech was coordinated with the release of a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution, which the United States began to circulate earlier Monday. The draft resolution was also silent on key details of the transition. While the resolution would endorse the June 30 handover and a U.S.-led multinational force, it did not say how much influence Iraq's new government would have over use of the security forces.
Bush's address, while using many of the same arguments he has employed previously, represented a subtle shift in the way he discusses the U.S. tribulations in Iraq. He gave a more frank acknowledgment of the troubles facing U.S. forces, warning that "there are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic."
Bush did not shy away from discussing setbacks, mentioning the insurgency in Fallujah, Karbala and Najaf, and the grisly killings of American civilians and a leader of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi authority. He gave more credit to the insurgents, previously dismissed as "few" in number, calling them "sophisticated" and noting that Hussein loyalists had reorganized and rearmed within the civilian population. As for the reluctance of U.S.-trained Iraqis to fight insurgents, he allowed: "We've learned from these failures, and we've taken steps to correct them."
Bush also acknowledged that he has had to revise plans for troop reductions. He said the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, more than the 115,000 the administration had forecast needing, would remain "as long as necessary."
Yet his acknowledgment of some of the troubles did not reduce the overall optimism and idealism that he has expressed in such speeches in the past. He reiterated many indicators of success that he has mentioned over the past year: the building of schools, hospitals, bridges and electric infrastructure; the introduction of a new currency; the training of Iraqi security forces; and increases in oil production and foreign aid commitments. Bush continued to attest to the good intentions of the U.S. occupants.
"I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power," he said. "I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American."
Bush's speech implicitly addressed two charges that have been leveled against him by ideological friends and foes alike: that he does not have a concrete plan for Iraq, and that he has minimized the trials there. "We're making progress, yet there still is much work to do," he said. Calling Iraqis "proud people who resent foreign control of their affairs," he pledged: "The coalition will demonstrate we have no interest in occupation."
The president's speech, and the proposed U.N. resolution, described the administration's plan for the transfer of power: a June 30 handover, direct elections of a transitional national assembly by the end of January 2005, a plea for more foreign troops and financial aid, and U.S. control of security until future negotiations determine otherwise. The administration wants to have the mandate for the U.S. forces in Iraq reviewed after a year, or earlier if the transitional government requests it.
"There are five steps in our plan to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom," Bush said. "We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government, help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, encourage more international support, and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."
The international reaction to the draft U.N. resolution was generally favorable, but France, which has consistently been antagonistic toward U.S. ambitions in Iraq, said it would seek a clear timeline for handing over control of the country's security.
Bush was vague about the eventual U.S. departure. "America's task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend -- a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf," he said. "And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done."
He also said the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would set up satellite offices in key cities to work with emerging Iraqi leaders. And U.S. forces, he said, "will be there to help."
As he has previously, Bush described the U.S. mission in Iraq as the start of a larger effort to spread democracy -- and with it, peace -- through the Middle East. "We believe that freedom can advance and change lives in the greater Middle East, as it has advanced and changed lives in Asia and Latin America and Eastern Europe and Africa."
Voicing another theme he has used consistently, Bush said the fight in Iraq has become the defining struggle against terrorism. "This would be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power, and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world," he said. Describing a clash of good against evil, he said: "We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty."
The speech, the first of several high-profile addresses Bush will give as June 30 approaches, comes as his political standing and public support for the war have fallen in tandem.
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the president's Democratic challenger, said in a statement that Bush "laid out general principles tonight, most of which we've heard before." He added: "What's most important now is to turn these words into action by offering presidential leadership to the nation and to the world."
Bush's choice of the War College for the address underscored the difficulty he faced in convincing Americans that he was pursuing the correct strategy in Iraq. The War College, the Army's highest-level educational institution, has published multiple studies that have been critical of Bush's Iraq policy. The president delivered his speech in a gymnasium once used by Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe. About 450 military brass, with ribbons on their chests, crowded into the warm, flag-festooned hall for Bush, who was making the first visit by a sitting president to the Carlisle Barracks since George Washington.
Bush did not answer the central question of exactly who would take over power in Iraq in a little more than a month. A U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is expected to announce that in the coming days. The administration has consulted with Brahimi but has left the public announcement to him in hopes that his efforts to balance the interests of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would have broader support without U.S. interference.