WASHINGTON - Under pressure from the persistent violence in Iraq, President Bush said yesterday that the United States was engaged in a period of "testing" and likened the challenge in Iraq to the reconstruction of Japan and Germany after World War II.
"There will be no retreat," he vowed.
Addressing veterans at an American Legion convention in St. Louis, Bush said the U.S.-led effort to stabilize Iraq would require a "substantial commitment of time and resources." He promised to work with Congress to provide more money for the occupation in Iraq.
The president insisted that the effort was vital to American security and to winning the war on terrorism that he began after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks," Bush told the crowd, which frequently interrupted with applause.
Bush's speech came as U.S. forces passed a somber milestone in Iraq: The number of troops who have died there since the president declared an end to major combat May 1 now exceeds the U.S. toll during the war. During the period of major combat, 138 troops died. From May 1 through yesterday, 140 have lost their lives, though more than half those deaths were not directly combat-related.
Critics, including some conservatives, have complained that the U.S.-led effort needs more money, more troops or better-trained security officers to help defeat the resistance and restore basic services for Iraqis. Setbacks have included almost daily attacks on U.S. forces and terrorist bombings of the Jordanian Embassy and the United Nations compound in Baghdad. The latter attack killed the top U.N. envoy in Iraq.
In light of what some critics have called inadequate planning for the postwar occupation, Bush used the speech to counsel patience and to sum up several administration themes: The war in Iraq is inextricably linked with the overall global war on terrorism, and the violent resistance there stems from a fear among terror networks that the United States will succeed in building a democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
"They know that the spread of peace and hope in the Middle East would undermine the appeal of bitterness, resentment and violence," Bush said.
In a vigorous reaffirmation of his doctrine allowing pre-emptive attacks against those seen as threats to the United States, Bush said: "We've adopted a new strategy for a new kind of war: We will not wait for known enemies to strike us again. We will strike them ... before they hit more of our cities and kill more of our citizens."
His speech came exactly a year after Vice President Dick Cheney began laying out the administration's justification for confronting Iraq. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26 of last year, Cheney said: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us."
Bush said yesterday that because of the war, "catastrophic weapons will no longer be in the hands of a reckless, unstable dictator." He did not mention the failure to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq.
Before launching a war to topple Hussein's regime, top administration officials tended to minimize the problems U.S. forces would face in the aftermath of victory, often predicting that the troops would be greeted as liberators and that Iraqi oil revenue would defray long-term reconstruction costs.
Yesterday, Bush likened the task of transforming Iraq to changes after World War II. He told the veterans:
"As many of you saw firsthand in Germany and Japan after World War II, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is a massive undertaking. It's not an easy task. In the aftermath of World War II, that task took years, not months, to complete. And yet the effort was repaid many times over as former enemies became friends and allies and partners in keeping the peace."
Few critics have demanded a U.S. withdrawal or "retreat" from Iraq, as Bush's speech seemed to suggest. Rather, most have called for a more robust effort to enlist international support, troops and money.
The problems faced by U.S. forces have become grist for Democratic presidential contenders, even those who supported the war in Iraq. Several renewed their criticism after Bush's speech yesterday.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts issued a statement saying, "I believe a lack of planning and a lack of candor with the American people have placed our men and women in uniform in increased harm's way."
Another Democratic hopeful, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, whose home state Bush visited yesterday, said the president needs to ask the United Nations and NATO for help.
"If we're going to succeed in winning the peace in Iraq, we're going to have to have help," Gephardt said.
Saying the situation in Iraq is "spinning out of control," Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina charged, "These developments warrant a new plan, not more empty rhetoric."
The administration is working on the wording of a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would attract more foreign troops and money to help stabilize and rebuild Iraq. But diplomats don't hold out much hope for strong foreign support unless the administration cedes some of its control over political and economic reconstruction.
Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman, said last night that U.S. officials were "looking closely" at ideas offered by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Meanwhile, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, met yesterday in Washington with Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet.
A Bremer aide, Dan Senor, declined to comment on reports that Bremer was pressing the administration to boost spending in Iraq by up to $3 billion. Senor said the meetings were not confined to a single purpose but rather dealt with "a number of issues related to Iraq."
Bush, claiming continued progress in Iraq despite the casualties and setbacks, said U.S. forces were receiving "more vital intelligence from Iraqi citizens," seized more than 8,200 tons of ammunition, and arrested or killed 42 out of 55 of the most-wanted Iraqi leaders.