President Bush said Friday that the United States will not set a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and predicted victory in what he repeatedly described as a difficult battle against fanatical "killers."
His remarks came hours after a suicide car bomber and gunmen ambushed a U.S. military convoy in Fallujah, devastating a vehicle filled with mostly female Marines, in the war's bloodiest day to date for women in uniform. At least one of the two Marines confirmed dead was a woman, as were 11 of 13 Americans injured. The death toll was likely to climb pending information about three Marines and one sailor who were unaccounted for.
This most recent bloodshed shadowed a joint news conference at the White House as Bush played host to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. The visitor endorsed Bush's view that the war remains a just and winnable cause and is going better than the public might expect based on the carnage they see on television.
The insurgents "know it bothers people to see death, and it does," Bush said after his first White House meeting with Jafari. "It bothers me, it bothers American citizens, it bothers Iraqis. They're trying to shake our will."
Bush's remarks were a preface to a major prime-time speech he plans to give Tuesday evening from Fort Bragg, N.C. His challenge is to reframe the Iraq debate, in order to maintain public tolerance for an open-ended military commitment at a time when polls suggest patience is dwindling.
"I'm not giving up on the mission," he said. "We're doing the right thing, which is to set the foundation for peace and freedom."
Bush also said there are reasons to be "optimistic for what's taking place," citing the training of Iraqi troops and progress toward erecting a new, democratically elected government where a tyrant once ruled.
Jafari, speaking mostly in Arabic, paid tribute to the more than 1,700 Americans killed in Iraq and said their sacrifice will one day change the Middle East. "We want to secure love instead of hatred in our country, coexistence and cooperation in Iraq instead of cursing each other," he said.
The two leaders offered a generally upbeat long-term assessment of Iraq on a day that underscored the chaos and unpredictability that persists more two years after the U.S.-led invasion and less than two months before an Iraqi deadline for writing a new constitution. The suicide attack in Fallujah dramatized the strength of the insurgency and sustained level of violence five months after 8.5 million Iraqis voted in the current interim government.
While Bush and Vice President Cheney have portrayed an insurgency in its last throes, U.S. military officials told Congress and administration officials last week that the amalgam of foreign terrorists, Saddam loyalists and anti-American Iraqis has not been noticeably weakened over the past six months. Bush, under pressure from Democrats, Republicans and even some of his own aides to offer a more candid assessment of the situation in Iraq, repeatedly stressed the difficulties of defeating terrorists after his meeting with Jafari.
"No question about it's difficult," Bush said. "It's tough work. And it's hard. The hardest part of my job is to comfort the family members who have lost a loved one, which I intend to do when I go down to North Carolina on Tuesday." Aides said the speech, after a visit with troops, will expand on Bush's twin feelings of optimism about eventual victory and sensitivity to the difficulties of achieving it.
With some lawmakers calling for a new approach to Iraq, Bush said America faces a "time of testing" that mandates patience and perseverance, not surrender. He struck a similar note on other parts of his agenda. Bush renewed his call to restructure Social Security and predicted imminent victory on his energy plan. When a reporter asked if he has fallen into a second-term slump, Bush cracked, "A quagmire, perhaps?"
Jafari, who met with lawmakers, top administration officials and wounded U.S. soldiers during his visit, said the violence obscures "steady and substantial progress" in the political process. Jafari and Bush said they are committed to meeting the mid-August deadline for completing the constitution, followed by a national referendum on it in mid-October and another round of voting by the end of the year. "People said Saddam would not fall, and he did," Jafari said. "They say the elections would not happen, and they did. They say the constitution will not be written, but it will."
Even so, there are signs the U.S. public is losing faith in the war as casualties mount -- 53 percent of people in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week said the Iraq mission was a mistake. A small but growing number of lawmakers are calling for Bush to set a firm date to pull out the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops.
Pressed on this idea, Bush responded with incredulity: "Why would you say to the enemy, you know, here's a timetable; well, just go ahead and wait us out?"
The administration's political and military strategies are linked to meeting the pending deadlines, hoping the political victories will reassure nervous Americans, discourage insurgents and embolden freedom-seeking Iraqis.
Bush placed much of the burden on Jafari for meeting the deadlines and rebuilding communities still lacking in water, electricity and infrastructure. When an Iraqi reporter asked when reconstruction would start, the president said, "It's your government, not ours."
"I don't want to be passing the buck, as we say. . . . We're more than willing to help reconstruction efforts, but this is a sovereign government," Bush said. Jafari, talking about the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany and other nations after World War II, said the reconstruction effort could one day be called the "Bush Plan" if successful.
"You have given us something more than money -- you have given us a lot of your sons, your children that were killed beside our own children in Iraq," Jafari said. "Iraqi people are insistent on going along the path for their economy and their security, but we do need the help of other countries who will help us, to stand beside us."