President Bush acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he erred by not ordering a military buildup in Iraq last year and said he was increasing US troops by 21,500 to quell the country's near-anarchy.
"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," Bush said.
In a prime-time address to the nation, Bush pushed back against the Democrats' calls to end the unpopular war. He said that "to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale."
"If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home," Bush said. But he braced Americans to expect more US casualties for now and did not specify how long the additional troops would stay.
In addition to extra US forces, the plan envisions Iraq's committing 10,000 to 12,000 more troops to secure Baghdad's neighborhoods — and taking the lead in military operations.
Senate and House Democrats are arranging votes urging the president not to send more troops. While lacking the force of law, the measures would compel Republicans to go on record as either bucking the president or supporting an escalation.
'Efforts to secure Baghdad failed'
Usually loath to admit error, Bush said it also was a mistake to have allowed American forces to be restricted by the Iraqi government, which tried to prevent US military operations against fighters controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful political ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The president said al-Maliki had assured him that from now on, "political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated."
"Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents," the president said. "And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have."
He said American commanders have reviewed the Iraqi plan "to ensure that it addressed these mistakes."
With Americans overwhelmingly unhappy with his Iraq strategy, Bush said it was a legitimate question to ask why this strategy to secure Baghdad will succeed where other operations failed. "This time we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared," the president said.
While Bush put the onus on the Iraqis to meet their responsibilities and commit more troops, he did not threaten specific consequences if they do not. Iraq has missed previous self-imposed timetables for taking over security responsibilities.
'US' commitment not open-ended'
Bush, however, cited the government's latest optimistic estimate. "To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November," the president said.
Still, Bush said that "America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to at."
Resisting calls for troop reductions, Bush said that "failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States. ... A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them."
But Bush warned that the strategy would, in a short term he did not define, bring more violence rather than less.
"Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties," he said. "The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will."