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Inside Politics

One year later, Bush defends Iraq speech

Critics: President spoke too soon

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Stay with CNN for updates and analysis from the campaign trail and for perspectives on the anniversary of President Bush's speech declaring the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
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The war in Iraq and criticism at home a year after President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech.
Audio Slide Show: One year ago

• White House:  Bush's speechexternal link
• Interactive: Tailhook landings
• Details: USS Abraham Lincoln
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
Unrest, Conflicts and War

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One year after President Bush declared major combat operations over in Iraq, Democratic critics say the commander in chief spoke too soon, pointing to continuing battles between U.S. forces and insurgents and mounting U.S. causalities.

Bush, however, stood by his speech when asked about it Friday.

"We're making progress, you bet," he told reporters.

Saturday marks the anniversary of Bush's nationally televised speech to the nation, delivered from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in which he stood under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" and hailed a "job well done." (Audio Slide Show: One year ago)

"My fellow Americans," Bush intoned May 1, 2003. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." (Gallery: The carrier landing)

Since that speech, close to 600 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, including more than 420 in hostile action. (Special Report: U.S. deaths in Iraq)

"Iraq has become a quagmire," Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said in a speech Thursday on the Senate floor. "It may well go down as the worst blunder in the entire history of American foreign policy."

But Bush defended the speech as he talked to reporters Friday during a Rose Garden appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we had accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein," Bush said.

"And as a result, there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq. As a result, a friend of terror has been removed and now sits in a jail.

"I also said on that carrier that day, that there was still difficult work ahead," Bush added.(Today in Iraq: Marines plan Fallujah pullback)

Democrats have seized on the anniversary as the springboard for extensive criticisms of Bush's policy in Iraq.

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, will address the issue Friday during a speech at Missouri's Westminster College, according to advance excerpts of the speech.

"I don't think there's anyone in this room today or 6,000 miles away who doesn't wish that those words had been true," Kerry says of the "mission accomplished" banner, according to the excerpts.

"But we've seen the news. We've seen the pictures. And we know we are living through days of great danger."

Although Bush initially won bipartisan congressional backing for his decision to go to war, many Democratic lawmakers have since said the administration has failed to articulate a clear plan for turning over sovereignty to the Iraqi people, scheduled to happen June 30.

And they have criticized Bush for what they describe as a failure to win more international help and financial backing to help rebuild Iraq.

"Mission accomplished? The mission in Iraq, as laid out by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, has failed," said Sen. Robert Byrd, a fierce critic of Bush's Iraq policy.

In the fall of 2002, the West Virginia Democrat voted against the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, and he took to the Senate floor Thursday to blast "this cocky, reckless administration."

The Iraq war has emerged as a hot issue on the campaign trail, with Kerry accusing the president of misleading the nation about the need to invade Iraq and Bush insisting military action was necessary.

"I saw a threat in Iraq," Bush said in a speech Monday in Minneapolis, and he reprised a line he has used many times to explain his decision to remove Saddam from power:

President Bush arrives on the USS Abraham Lincoln last year.

"Faced with trusting a madman and hoping for the best, or working to make sure America's more secure, I will always make the decision to keep America secure."

Republicans have rallied around the president, insisting the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been largely successful, despite a flare-up of deadly violence in recent weeks.

"On balance, I think things are going well," said Rep. Vito Fossella, R-New York, told CNN's "Crossfire" Wednesday. "We've liberated a country; 25 million or so Iraqis now can look forward to democracy and freedoms that we currently enjoy."

Democratic criticism of the USS Lincoln speech has been building all week. On Wednesday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey displayed a picture of Bush giving the speech on the Senate floor. (Full story)

"The mission accomplished was to get a picture that could be used in an election campaign," Lautenberg said.

The speech aboard the USS Lincoln was controversial from the start.

Bush arrived on the aircraft carrier in a utility warplane, sitting in the co-pilot's seat as the jet made a tailhook landing. (Full story)

Democrats criticized his arrival as a campaign stunt and questioned the cost of the move.

Some months later, when questioned about the "Mission Accomplished" banner, Bush said it was put up by the ship's crew. But the White House later conceded it produced and paid for the banner as part of the president's visit.

As they did a year ago, White House officials said the USS Lincoln speech was primarily about thanking the armed forces.

"They are performing brilliantly in their efforts to bring about a free, peaceful Iraq, which is critical to winning the war on terrorism," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Thursday.

CNN's John King contributed to this report.

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