Bush: Iraq turning away from 'the abyss'
President accuses Iran of supporting insurgency
Hoping to shore up support for the war, President Bush said Iraq was moving toward a democratic future.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Iraqi response to sectarian tensions created after the bombing of a Samarra mosque in February gave hope to the dream of a free, democratic Iraq, President Bush argued Monday.
"The situation in Iraq is still tense, and we're still seeing acts of sectarian violence and reprisal," Bush said in a speech in Washington. "Yet out of this crisis, we've also seen signs of a hopeful future."
The attack on the Al-Askariya Mosque, one of the holiest sites to Shiite Muslims, was meant to ignite a civil war between Iraqi Shiites and minority Sunnis, Bush said, but "the Iraqi people made their choice. They looked into the abyss and did not like what they saw."
"Iraqis have shown the world that they want a future of peace," Bush said.
Bush also accused Iran of providing material support to the insurgency in Iraq and vowed to continue to pressure Iraq's neighbor.
"Such actions, along with Iran's support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolating Iran, and America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats," he said.
Military intelligence sources tell CNN that Iranians have crossed into southern Iraq to try to influence the Shiite community and train militias. In addition, late last year there was a shipment of weapons seized that had earmarks of coming from Iran. That shipment included improvised explosive devices that appeared to be manufactured with the same techniques used by Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, military intelligence officials said.
The president's remarks, part of a series of speeches to be given as the war in Iraq approaches its third anniversary, were meant to shore up the American public's support for the deployment. Recent polls show eroding support for the war and the president's handling of it. (Full story)
A CNN poll released on Monday found that 57 percent of those polled believed that sending troops in Iraq was a mistake, while 42 percent felt the war was not a mistake. Sixty percent of Americans believed that things were going badly in Iraq, and 67 percent believe that President Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the war. (View poll results )
The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, faulted the president for launching another series of speeches to rally support for the war.
"I would rather that he had spent his time focusing on how to form a government in Iraq. That is what is badly needed," Reid said. "We need a political solution to the problems in Iraq, we don't need people to tell us how well the war is going."
The president pointed to the expanded deployment of Iraqi security forces and actions by the Iraqi interim government during the crisis as signs that the Iraqi government and security institutions are nearing the stage when they will be able to stand alone without U.S. assistance.
"We saw the restraint of the Iraqi people in the face of massive provocation. Most Iraqis did not turn to violence and many chose to show their solidarity by coming together in joint Sunni and Shia prayer services," he said.
As a sign of progress, Bush pointed to the increased capacity of the Iraqi army, which now numbers 130 battalions, of which 60 can "take the lead" during joint operations with coalition forces. In December, Bush reported that only 40 units could take the lead.
Bush admitted that "not all units performed as well as others" during the crisis in February, but American commanders in charge of training the Iraqi forces said poor performance was "the exception rather than the rule" and that most operated in a professional manner.
He pressed the newly elected parliament to form a unity government that enjoys broad support. Rising sectarian violence has hindered negotiations between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad, much to the chagrin of American diplomats.
"Iraqis now have the chance to learn the lessons of Samarra," Bush said. "The only path to peace is the path of unity."
Since the war began nearly three years ago, more than 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq -- most of them battling a persistent insurgency that emerged after Bush's May 1, 2003, declaration that "major combat" was over.
Bush and other top officials said the invasion was necessary to strip Iraq of illicit stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. U.S. inspectors later concluded that Iraq had dismantled its weapons programs under U.N. sanctions in the 1990s, though it had concealed some weapons-related research from the United Nations.
The recent violence, the president said, was meant to create negative media coverage that will shake American's will. "They will not succeed," he said.
"I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead is smooth," Bush said "I cannot."
Britain announced Monday that it would withdraw about 700 troops from Iraq by the end of May, a drawdown of nearly 10 percent of its force. But Bush vowed that American troops would remain in Iraq until Iraq's fledgling government was able to defend itself and the country was no longer "a safe haven for terrorists," and repeated his rejection of any "artificial timetables" for a U.S. withdrawal.
"We will finish what we started in Iraq," the president said. "We will complete the mission."
Improvised explosive devices
The president also said his administration is working to counter threats of roadside bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), in Iraq by hunting down the bomb makers, improving the training of troops headed to Iraq and developing technology to counter the threat.
According to the Pentagon, more than 900 U.S. troops have been killed by explosive devices and more than 9,000 wounded. The Pentagon has stepped up its effort to find and dismantle IEDs, but attacks by insurgents have increased, Pentagon officials confirm.
"We are seeing greater degrees of sophistication, different techniques, different technological approaches," Army Brigadier General Carter Ham told CNN. "And that's a great challenge for us."
The president said he proposes spending $3.3 billion in anti-IED technology in the upcoming Pentagon budget.
CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.
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