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At a combination speech and news conference at the White House, Bush rejected a suggestion that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam - a quagmire without ready exit. "I think that analogy is false," he said. "I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and it sends the wrong message to our enemy."
One year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bush said a recent spike in savage violence is neither a civil war nor a popular uprising. "The violence we've seen is a power grab by ... extreme and ruthless elements" from inside Iraq and from outside.
While the troops will remain, Bush also said the United States would stick to a deadline of June 30 for handing over political power to Iraqis. He said a U.N. envoy would help decide which Iraqis would be placed in charge.
Bush opened the session in the White House East Room with a 17-minute statement - roughly the duration of a medium-length address to the nation. The audience included top aides, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and political guru Karl Rove among them - and uncounted millions watching the prime-time appearance on television.
While Bush opened with remarks about Iraq, the questions were broader - focusing as well on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Bush sidestepped at least two opportunities to say he wanted to apologize or take personal responsibility.
"Had I had any inkling whatsoever that people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to protect the country. Just like we're working to prevent further attacks," he said.
Asked whether he felt any responsibility for the attack, Bush said he grieved for the families of the victims and said in retrospect he wished, for example, the Homeland Security Department had been in place.
Bush did not say so, but even after the attack, he initially opposed creation of the agency. He changed his mind under prodding from lawmakers.
The president also said a highly publicized intelligence briefing he received on Aug. 6, 2001, contained "nothing new" in terms of disclosing that Osama bin Laden hoped to attack the United States. He was heartened, he said, by the disclosure that the FBI was conducting numerous investigations.
But that claim was undercut earlier in the day at a televised hearing by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks. Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard testified he didn't know where the material came from, and one commission member, Slade Gorton, suggested many of the investigations related to fund raising, not the threat of attacks.
Bush said he would investigate the matter.
Bush strode into the East Room of the White House midway through the deadliest month for Americans since Baghdad fell last spring.
At least 83 U.S. forces have been killed and more than 560 wounded this month, according to the U.S. military, as American troops fight on three fronts: against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Shiite militiamen in the south and gunmen in Baghdad and on its outskirts. At least 678 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March 2003.
Additionally, four American employees of a private security company working in Iraq were killed and their bodies mutilated two weeks ago, and Thomas Hamill, an employee another firm, was seized as a hostage since last week.
Iraq figures in Bush's decline in public opinion polls in two areas that are critical for his re-election campaign. Approval of his handling of Iraq has declined to the mid-40 percent level, and approval for his handling of terrorism has dipped into the mid-50s. Growing numbers of people say the military action in Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism.
Bush said the United States was demanding the arrest or capture of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose illegal militias are blamed for the mutilation of the four Americans. He said he had instructed the military to use decisive force if necessary to crush the insurgency.
He compared insurgents taking hostages in Iraq to radical Islamic fanatics around the world, saying they are "serving the same ideology of murder" of those who blow up trains in Madrid, Spain, bomb buses in Israel - or inflicted the worst attack in American history on Sept. 11, 2001.
"None of these actions are the work of a religion, Bush said. "All are the work of a fanatical political ideology."
While Bush said American troops will remain in Iraq, he also said the United States would formally recognize the new Iraqi government once the June 30 transfer of power was completed and appoint an ambassador and open an embassy.
He also said he would send Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the Middle East to discuss issues of "mutual interest" with nations there.
It was Bush's first prime-time news conference since March 6, 2003, just days before the opening of the war to depose Saddam. Bush's only other evening news conference was on Oct. 11, 2001, a month after the terror attacks.
In the hours leading up to Bush's appearance, the national commission investigating Sept. 11 held a televised hearing and issued a report that said a more alert FBI and CIA working together might have uncovered the terrorists' plot. The report detailed an agonizing series of missed opportunities, half-measures and bureaucratic inertia.
Commissioner Thomas H. Kean called it "an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time."
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.