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Iraq situation 'unacceptable'

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush, justifying his decision to send 21,500 more troops and more than $1 billion in aid to Iraq amid sweeping public opposition to the war, said in a prime-time TV address last night that the new push would speed the day when U.S. forces could come home.

With the Democratic-led Congress poised to cast no-confidence votes on his policy as early as next week, a somber Bush acknowledged that the public's patience with the war is wearing thin and took responsibility for mistakes.

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"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people - and it is unacceptable to me," Bush said. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."

But he said that stepping up the U.S. military presence and financial commitment was vital to averting disaster in Iraq, warning of greater dangers should the mission fail.

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Bush put no timetable on the new troops - the first of which arrived in Baghdad hours before his 9 p.m. speech - even as he said Iraqis would have to do their part and that the American commitment is "not open-ended."

The president, who has repeatedly laid out revised goals and strategies for Iraq only to see them crumble amid sectarian violence and a mounting death toll, argued that his plan would "change America's course in Iraq."

Even Bush's posture and backdrop seemed calculated to signal a change in course; he delivered the roughly 20-minute speech standing in the White House Library, not from his customary seat at his Oval Office desk.

The plan came after a monthlong buildup in which Bush promised a new approach to address previous mistakes. Nevertheless, critics said it bore striking resemblance to past moves that were billed as course-corrections, including the promise of more robust U.S. military support and more effective Iraqi cooperation.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of the most vocal critics, said Bush is "not only going to stay the course, he's going to escalate the course."

Bush said Iraqis understand they must step up by providing more troops, taking the lead role in securing Baghdad and barring militias from interfering in security efforts. They have committed to meeting benchmarks, including key reconciliation measures, Bush said.

Entering the final two years of his term, Bush faces a newly hostile environment on Capitol Hill, where Democrats vehemently oppose his Iraq policy and Republicans are increasingly skeptical.

Today, he is to continue his campaign to sell the plan to a war-weary public with an appearance at Fort Benning, Ga. Meanwhile, a coalition of liberal groups - the same band that hammered at Bush's Social Security overhaul plan before it collapsed - announced a full-scale "anti-escalation" push, promising a public-relations showdown between the White House and Democratic activists over the war.

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Under the latest plan, the U.S. will send five additional Army combat brigades, or about 17,500 troops, to Baghdad. An additional 4,000 Marines will go to Anbar province, an al-Qaida stronghold and the base of the Sunni insurgency. The increase would cost an additional $5.6 billion, a senior administration official said.

Iraqis will, in turn, send three more brigades into Baghdad, Bush added.

As part of the plan, the United States will spend $1.2 billion for enhanced reconstruction and civil affairs projects, including job creation.

The plan relies heavily on the ability and will of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister who has failed to stabilize his fledgling government and calm Sunni-Shiite violence. Bush still believes that al-Maliki is capable of doing so, White House officials said, but many lawmakers and analysts have substantial doubts.

"If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people, and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act," Bush said, adding that al-Maliki "understands this."

White House officials were quick to reject the idea that the president's latest ideas for Iraq were a last-ditch effort to turn things around in the shattered war zone, but it seemed clear that some of Bush's closest allies saw it that way.

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Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, after a meeting with Bush hours before the speech, said, "many members of Congress are skeptical about, 'Will this plan work?'" given the failure of previous approaches. But he said the president's latest iteration is "a good plan" that represents "our best shot at victory in Iraq."

Democrats, including those from Maryland, roundly criticized Bush's proposal, which they said ignores the anti-war message of the 2006 elections and will amplify a failed mission.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, called Bush's plan "reckless."

"We are in a hole in Iraq, and the president says that the way out is to dig deeper," she said in a statement.

Democratic leaders said they would press for a swift vote opposing Bush's plans, and some support a Kennedy measure requiring that Bush get congressional approval for the troop increase.

"We in the Congress are very frustrated," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, adding that Bush had not answered the fundamental question of how to get U.S. forces out of Iraq.

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"It's the American people who are paying for this war, and it's the American people who have been very patient with this president. It's the American people who have given the benefit of the doubt to this president, and now, I think, the American people have run out of patience," Cummings said.

Most leading Republicans said they support Bush's plan, applauding him for adjusting tactics in the face of a chaotic situation.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said the plan is "not without risk" but is "the best chance" for Iraq.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a likely presidential contender, and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut were among those who cheered the bulked-up U.S. troop presence.

But other Republicans cast a skeptical eye, voicing doubts about the Iraqi government's ability to quell factional tensions and crack down on violence.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a likely Republican presidential candidate who is traveling in the Middle East, said the United States should not send more troops "until Sunnis and Shia are more willing to cooperate with each other instead of shooting at each other."

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Some conservatives suggested Bush was sending too few troops to solve Iraq's problems.

"This undertaking will require a sustained, not a temporary, surge, in order to secure the country and enable the Iraqi government to take control and determine its own future," Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement. "It will require the commitment of not a minimal, but a substantial number of additional troops, perhaps as many as 50,000."

Bush nodded to congressional criticism of his plan, saying he would consider "improvements," but he pointedly signaled that the White House will challenge opponents to step forward with their own proposals.

"It is fair to hold our views up to scrutiny. And all involved have a responsibility to explain how the path they propose would be more likely to succeed," Bush said.

The president proposed no new diplomatic push to enhance outreach to Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, a key recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's December report. Bush said only that he would "interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria" to armed groups attacking American forces in Iraq.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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Sun Reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

Bush's plan

TROOP INCREASE: 21,500 additional troops

ECONOMIC AID: $1.2 billion in reconstruction and civil affairs projects in Iraq's four most dangerous provinces

REGIONAL DIPLOMACY: Negotiating help from Arab states while avoiding talks about Iraq with Iran and Syria

IRAQI COMMITMENTS: $10 billion for reconstruction efforts; three military brigades for Baghdad


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