Bush: 'We have to win the battle after the battle'
President's speech touts gains in Iraqi infrastructure
President Bush speaks before the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday in Washington.
KEY POINTS OF SPEECH
President Bush cited "quiet, steady progress" in Iraq that he said doesn't always make headlines.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush touted U.S. wartime successes in helping Iraq improve its economy and infrastructure Wednesday during a high-profile speech saying "we have to win the battle after the battle."
With growing public doubts about the war and heightened congressional debate about the U.S. military deployment, Bush focused on reconstruction efforts, saying U.S. strategy has shifted from large projects to smaller jobs that can be completed quickly, such as sewer lines and city roads.
Bush made his speech to members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank whose members include influential Democrats critical of the administration's handling of the Iraq war. ( Watch Bush's latest salvo in the war of words on Iraq -- 5:25 )
"Over the course of this war, we have learned that winning the battle for Iraqi cities is only the first step," Bush said. "We also have to win the battle after the battle by helping Iraqis consolidate their gains and keep the terrorists from returning."
Bush praised criticism from a key Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who, after touring Iraq recently, said "mistakes have been made." (Transcript)
Bush quoted Lieberman, saying, " 'What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will,' and, in a famous phrase, 'to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.'
"Senator Lieberman is right," Bush said.
"There's an important debate going on in our nation's capital about Iraq," Bush said. "And the fact that we can debate these issues openly in the midst of a dangerous war brings credit to our democracy."
'We adjusted our approach'
The president said U.S. strategy to rebuild Iraq's cities was shifted because the cities couldn't be controlled after U.S. forces left. "So we adjusted our approach," Bush said.
"We increased the amount of money commanders had at their disposal for flexible use. We worked with Iraqi leaders to provide more contracts directly to Iraqi firms," Bush said.
"In two and a half years, the Iraqi people have made amazing progress," the president said. "They've gone from living under the boot of a brutal tyrant to liberation, to free elections, to a democratic constitution."
Bush conceded reconstruction "has not always gone as well as we had hoped," but he vowed the United States would not abandon Iraq until "complete victory" is accomplished.
Despite Bush's concession, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, an outspoken critic of the war, said the president failed to define "political, economic and military benchmarks that need to be met" in Iraq. "Democrats firmly believe that the U.S. can and must succeed [in Iraq] but the president's open-ended, ill-defined policy will not get us there."
Decorated Vietnam War veteran Rep. John Murtha, a 17-term Democratic hawk from Pennsylvania, repeated his call for U.S. troops to pullout of Iraq immediately, an idea Bush has rejected.
"The American public is thirsting for a plan -- they don't see a plan, a way out," Murtha said. "I had one of the generals tell us in a closed hearing ... 20 years it's going to take to settle this thing."
"The sooner we get out, in my estimation, the better off we'll be."
Najaf, Mosul cited as examples
As specific examples of U.S. successes in Iraqi reconstruction, Bush cited work in two Iraqi cities that he said had been devastated during Saddam Hussein's reign: Najaf, in south central Iraq, and the north in Mosul, where relatively few insurgent attacks occur.
In Najaf, Bush said "virtually every element of infrastructure and basic services had been crippled by years of insufficient maintenance."
U.S. and Iraq officials "worked with Najaf's governor and other local officials to rebuild the local police force, repair residents' homes, refurbish schools, restore water and other essential service, reopen a soccer stadium, complete with new lights and fresh sod."
"In Mosul," Bush said, "Iraqis upgraded key roads and bridges over the Tigris River, rebuilt schools and hospitals and started refurbishing the Mosul airport. Police stations and fire houses were rebuilt."
Neither city lies in the Sunni Triangle in central Iraq, the area where most insurgent attacks have taken place.
Bush also said 30,000 new Iraqi businesses have registered since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Reed described the accomplishments cited by Bush as "very small ones" and said that many of the problems in Iraq today stem from poor planning by the administration in 2003 prior to the war and relying on the Defense Department to administer post-war Iraq.
"Problems like a dilapidated infrastructure and ancient rivalries between religious and ethnic factions were conveniently ignored, as the neocons predicted that we would be welcomed with open arms in a country that was economically and culturally ready for a rapid transition to democracy supported by profits from oil," Reed said.
"How much time, money and personnel will be needed to repair and replace all those great projects in Iraq?" Reed asked.
Run-up to December 15 elections
The speech was the second in a series of addresses in advance of Iraq's December 15 national elections. Iraqis are set to select a permanent National Assembly after choosing a transitional parliament in January and approving a constitution in October. U.S. military officials have predicted that insurgent attacks likely will escalate in advance of the election.
According to the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released November 30, nearly six in 10 respondents said U.S. troops should not be withdrawn from Iraq until certain goals are achieved. Just 35 percent wanted to set a specific timetable for their exit, as some critics of the war have suggested.
CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.
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