President Bush Wednesday used the death of 37 U.S. troops to tout the upcoming Iraq elections but lowered turnout expectations for a vote that more and more now say may be more farce than democracy.
At a hastily arranged news conference on the bloodiest day of the war for American toops, Bush said he anticipated a “grand moment in Iraqi history” when Iraqis vote this weekend.
“I urge all people to vote. I urge people to defy these terrorists,” Bush said. “They (the terrorists) have no clear view of a better future. They’re afraid of a free society.”
With many Iraqis afraid to go to the polls and insurgents already attacking some places where voting will take place, Bush would not predict the turnout other than to say millions will vote. Iraqi officials hope 50 percent of 14 million eligible voters turn out.
“The fact that they’re voting in itself is successful,” Bush said.
Violence could worsen after the elections because insurgents may seek to exploit uncertainty while results are being certified and the government assembled, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters. It could take until March or April “for these things to sort themselves,” he said after a closed-door Senate briefing.
Bush, in an interview with Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, had a blunt message for Iran that “the Iranians should not be trying to unduly influence the elections.”
Iran in the past has been suspected by some countries in the region of trying to influence the Shi’ite majority to have an Iranian-style government in Iraq.
Bush later spoke by telephone with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and “they both agreed on the importance of a continuing role for the United Nations in Iraq after the elections,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
At his 47-minute news conference, Bush expressed sadness over the crash of a U.S. helicopter in western Iraq that killed 31 American Marines. Six more U.S. troops died in insurgent attacks on Wednesday.
“The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people. I understand that. We value life. And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life,” Bush said.
The U.S. death toll, now approaching 1,400, is causing many Americans to have doubts about the Iraq war and some members of the U.S. Congress want a timetable for a troop withdrawal.
Bush rejected Democrats who call the war a quagmire and defended his $80 billion request for funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is projected to push the U.S. budget deficit to $427 billion.
“The notion somehow we’re not making progress I just don’t subscribe to. I mean, we’re having elections,” he said.
Appearing relaxed and confident at his 18th solo news conference, the first of his second term, Bush held firm that U.S. troops will stay to complete the mission.
“I think the Iraqi people are wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as a democracy evolves. The enemy would like nothing more than the United States to precipitously pull out and withdraw before the Iraqis are prepared to defend themselves,” he said.
But he seemed to suggest that by the end of the year, the mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to protect themselves could be complete. U.S. forces have had mixed success in training the Iraqis, with some units running from battle.
“Over the next year, we’ll be advancing our plan to make sure the Iraqis are better prepared to defend themselves and to fight,” he said.
Bush told Al Arabiya that 120,000 Iraqis have received military training, a number disputed by some analysts. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready. There’s a difference between quantity and quality,” he said.
Any decision on a permanent U.S. base in Iraq is up to the new government, he said.
The State Department posted a notice warning Americans of the possibility of election-related attacks and kidnappings in Iraq.
Bush also sought at the news conference to clarify his inaugural address, in which he called for the advance of freedom worldwide. Some analysts have interpreted the speech as an aggressive new posture by the United States that could have consequences for allies like China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Bush said it was not a policy shift but rather a “long-term goal” that will require “the commitment of generations.”
“There won’t be instant democracy,” Bush said.