Bush Faces Tough Questions at Press Conference

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By: E&P Staff and The Associated Press

In a hastily-called meeting with reporters today, President Bush conceded that the United States is taking heavy casualties and said, ”I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq.”

”I’m not satisfied either,” he said at a speech and question and answer session at the White House 13 days before midterm elections. Bush again stood up for Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.

Several reporters — notably, NBC’s David Gregory — responded with tough questions, including asking about the timing just before the elections and the announcement of no major policy changes. ?You?re asking me why I?m giving this speech today? Because I think I owe an explanation to the American people and will continue to make explanations,” Bush replied. “The people need to know that we have a plan for victory.?

Referring to the elections, he added: “I like campaigning. It?s what guys like me do in order to get here.?

The Washington Post’s Peter Baker asked him why, if he is admitting major mistakes or miscalculations, no one seems to be held accountable. “The ultimate accountability, Peter, rests with me,” Bush answered. “That’s the ultimate — you’re asking about accountability — it rests right here. It’s what the 2004 campaign was about. You know, people want to — if people are unhappy about it, look right to the president.”

When Baker thanked him for taking questions, Bush replied: “I’m just happy to be able to do so, brother….I can’t tell you how joyful it is.”

Later, the president almost admitted that he actually reads newspapers, something he has pretty much denied in the past. Tweaking the press for making election projections favoring the Democrats, he said, “Now, again, I understand how — I read — look at the newspapers around here. …The race is over as far as a lot of the punditry goes. You know, they’ve got it all figured out.”

Bush was also asked about establishing permanent military bases in Iraq — a hot-button issue, as many Iraqis oppose the notion. A New York Times editorial on Tuesday called on the U.S. to renounce the idea. But Bush replied, “Any decisions about permanency in Iraq will be made by the Iraqi government,” although obviously the U.S. is free to simply say it will not do that.

Earlier he had said: “Absolutely, we are winning.” But he cautioned: “Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions.”

Several Democratic critics have said that is precisely what the administration is risking with an open-ended commitment of American forces, at a time that a year-old Iraqi government gropes for a compromise that can satisfy Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political interests.

But Bush said, “it remains critical that the United States defeats the enemy” in a long and brutal war.

“Our security at home depends on assuring that Iraq is an ally in the war on terror,” Bush said in the opening moments of a White House news conference less than two weeks before midterm elections.

Bush made clear at the outset that he intended to devote several minutes to an update on the war in Iraq, telling reporters he intended to speak for longer than usual before taking their questions.

He said that as those killing Americans and Iraqi trooops change tactics, so, too, will the U.S. military. He also sought a middle ground in terms of pressing the Iraqis to accept more of the responsibility for their own fate.

“We are making it clear that America’s patience is not unlimited,” he said. “We will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear.”

Bush spoke as polls showed the public has become strongly opposed to the war, and increasing numbers of Republican candidates have signaled impatience with the president’s policies.

U.S. and Iraqi forces on Wednesday, meanwhile, raided Sadr City, the stronghold of the feared Shiite militia led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disavowed the operation, saying he had not been consulted and insisting ”that it will not be repeated.”

The defiant al-Maliki also slammed the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for saying Iraq needed to set a timetable to curb violence ravaging the country. ”I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it,” al-Maliki said at a news conference.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Tuesday that al-Maliki had agreed to the plan, announced at a rare joint appearance with Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

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