Washington On the eve of the first parliamentary elections in Iraq, President Bush on Wednesday accepted full responsibility for invading the country on faulty intelligence.
But, in the last of four speeches designed to underscore the stakes in Iraq nearly three years after the invasion, Bush looked back only long enough to reiterate his long-standing assertion that toppling Saddam Hussein was the "right decision."
The special commission that Bush appointed to investigate the prewar intelligence lapses concluded last March that the administration had been "dead wrong" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - the president's primary justification for the invasion. And the president has embraced its recommendations, vowing to fix the problems.
Still, his acceptance of responsibility Wednesday was a signal point in his new campaign to answer a growing chorus of war critics and offer a skeptical public what he calls a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."
"The assertion of administration infallibility just wasn't cutting it," said Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "This puts a different framework and a different perspective on how he wants people to think about the war, which was long overdue."
Bush launched his new campaign in a stinging Veterans Day rebuke to his critics a month ago, carried it through a weeklong tour of Asia, then delivered four keynote speeches, ending on the eve of Wednesday's Iraqi elections.
Other members of his administration - including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - have struck back as well since Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Marine and congressional authority on defense, called for a quick U.S. withdrawal last month.
Public opinion up
And Bush, who was at his low point in the public opinion polls a month ago, has risen about 5 percentage points to the low 40s. Still, the polls show a majority of Americans have serious questions about the war and Bush's ability to deliver on his own victory plan.
With that backdrop, Donnelly said it's clear that "if the president walks away from making the effort that a leader in wartime has to make, he'll find himself behind the eight-ball again."
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, kept up the Democratic criticism, charging just before the president's speech that Bush hadn't yet "leveled with the American people."
"In order to support the mission," Reid said, "the American people need to know the remaining political, economic and military benchmarks, maybe a reachable schedule for achieving them."
Bush, however, has dismissed all talk of timetables, saying that U.S. forces will be withdrawn only when enough Iraqi troops and police are properly trained to protect their country.
The Iraq insurgency is "trying to break our will in the hopes of getting America to leave the battlefield early," Bush said, adding an unusual note for him: "And they cite Vietnam as a reason they can prevail." But the president declared, repeating his earlier assertions: "We will never back down. We will never give in. And we will never accept anything less than complete victory."
Bush delivered his speech before several hundred scholars and diplomats assembled by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan Washington research institution. And the White House said Wednesday that the president intends to keep talking about Iraq and the rebounding U.S. economy, the administration's top two priorities.
James Lindsay, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Bush's words alone will not turn the tide of public opinion that is rising against the war.
"No number of presidential speeches, no matter how eloquently given, are going to change public opinion if the facts on the ground don't look good," Lindsay said.
"What the public is going to want to see is that the Iraqi army is beginning to stand up, that the Iraqi political system looks like it's working, that attacks on American troops are going down."
In his half-hour address, the shortest of his four Iraq speeches in the past two weeks, Bush pointed to Wednesday's parliamentary elections as a "watershed moment in the story of freedom," the next stop to what he noted would be the only "constitutional democracy in the Arab world."
Nonetheless, he forecast many challenges ahead, as well as "continued sacrifice."
"It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," Bush said, defending his decision for war. "As president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. And I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities, and we're doing just that."
The former, bipartisan 9-11 commission, however, has chastised the administration for moving too slowly to address the intelligence problems the president has pledged to fix.
"We're safer," its chairman Tom Kean told reporters last week, but "not as safe as we need to be."
Still, noting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and Saddam's history, Bush said he had no regrets in invading Iraq.
"Saddam was a threat," the president said, "and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power."