President Bush brushed aside concerns about violence and disorder in Iraq and told world leaders assembled here on Tuesday that the country is making progress against insurgents.
Bush's upbeat assessment of world affairs in general and Iraq in particular contrasted sharply with assessments of diplomats and world leaders gathered for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. While others lamented spreading violence and a breakdown of the rule of law, Bush asserted that times have improved.
"During the past three years, I've addressed this General Assembly in a time of tragedy for my country and in times of decision for all of us," he told the delegates, who listened quietly and applauded respectfully. "Now we gather at a time of tremendous opportunity for the U.N. and for all peaceful nations."
Later, in an appearance with Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Bush dismissed questions about two Republican senators' calls for a more candid assessment of the Iraq situation, and about a CIA report that warned that Iraq is in danger of further disorganization and possibly civil war.
"The Iraqi citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions," Bush told reporters, adding: "Iraqi citizens are seeing a determined effort by responsible citizens to lead to a more hopeful tomorrow, and I am optimistic we'll succeed."
Allawi echoed Bush's buoyant theme. "It's very important for the people of the world really to know that we are winning, we are making progress in Iraq, we are defeating terrorists," he said. "Unfortunately, the media have not been covering these significant gains in Iraq."
Earlier Tuesday, Allawi took the unusual step of greeting Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom with a handshake -- a risky gesture for a leader in the Arab world.
The president said he was hoping that the visit by the pro-America Iraqi leader -- Bush will meet with Allawi at the White House on Thursday -- will convince Americans that "progress is being made" in Iraq despite grim television images of violence there.
Bush spoke a day after terrorists in Iraq posted a gruesome video of an American being beheaded and before the group said it had slain a second U.S. hostage. More than 30 car-bomb attacks have occurred in Iraq this month, as the number of U.S. troops dead in the Iraq conflict has recently exceeded 1,000. Large parts of Iraq remain under the control of insurgents.
The upsurge in violence in Iraq -- which Bush said would likely intensify as the country's January elections approach -- has returned the subject to the center of the U.S. presidential campaign with the election six weeks away. Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry on Tuesday said that Bush "needs to live in the world of reality, not in a world of fantasy spin."
Bush's speech to the General Assembly played down his administration's past differences with the United Nations, only briefly revisiting the Security Council's refusal to authorize war in Iraq. Noting that the Security Council had vowed "serious consequences" for Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with its resolutions, Bush said "a coalition of nations enforced the just demands of the world."
In his speech, the president tied the Iraq war to the war in Afghanistan and the broader struggle against terrorists. "Not long ago, outlaw regimes in Baghdad and Kabul threatened the peace and sponsored terrorists," he said. "Today the Iraqi and Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom. . . . And this progress is good for the long-term security of all of us."
Bush made no specific requests for help in Iraq but called on the United Nations and its members to "do more to help build an Iraq that is secure, democratic, federal and free."
Bush also urged action on a range of issues that have been less polarizing at the world body: a ban on human cloning, a clampdown on human trafficking and efforts to fight AIDS, poverty and corruption.
He decried the "terrible suffering and horrible crimes" in Sudan's Darfur region and called on Israel to "impose a settlement freeze," while urging new Palestinian leadership. Bush also proposed a new "democracy fund" within the United Nations that would help with elections and other democratic processes.
Later, asked by reporters about calls from GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) for a more candid assessment about the Iraq situation, Bush replied that both men "want me elected as president. We agree that the world is better off with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell. And that stands in stark contrast to the statement my opponent made yesterday, when he said that the world was better off with Saddam in power." Kerry has said he would not have waged war in Iraq if he had been president but has asserted that "the world is better off" without Hussein in power.
Bush also played down the significance of a CIA report forecasting more difficulty in Iraq. "The CIA laid out several scenarios and said life could be lousy, life could be okay, life could be better, and they were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like," he said.
The confidential August report to policymakers, according to an administration official who described it yesterday, outlined three scenarios over the next 18 months: a period of "tenuous stability," a time of "further fragmentation and extremism" or a period of "trending to civil war."
Bush's rosy assessment of Iraq came after other leaders and diplomats offered more somber accounts in recent days. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, in an interview Monday with al-Arabiya television, said: "The past week has witnessed an escalation in the security problems, undoubtedly."
Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who recently riled the administration by calling the Iraq war "illegal," offered milder criticism than he had in the past. But he warned that "the rule of law is at risk around the world," and that "at times even the necessary fight against terrorism is allowed to encroach unnecessarily on civil liberties."
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who addressed the assembly before Bush, warned that "mankind is losing the fight for peace," adding: "The necessary fight against terrorism cannot be conceived strictly in military terms."
European leaders claimed some vindication of their view that Security Council approval was necessary for the Iraq war to succeed. "In hindsight, experience shows that actions taken without a mandate which has been clearly defined in a Security Council resolution are doomed to failure," President Joseph Deiss of Switzerland told the General Assembly.
But Bush received friendly words on Iraq from other quarters. Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili said his country cannot "afford to look the other way" and offered "to send fresh troops to Iraq to serve in the special protection force for the U.N. mission."
In a closed-door meeting with Annan, Bush underscored the importance of pressing for elections in Afghanistan and in Iraq during a discussion that also covered the Middle East conflict, Congo and Haiti. Annan has warned that the United Nations may not be able to endorse elections in Iraq if the violence continues at the current pace.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who attended the meeting, also told Annan that United Nations must move more aggressively to ensure the deployment of thousands of African Union monitors in Darfur.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.