President says removing Hussein still 'right decision'
On the eve of Iraq's historic election, President Bush took responsibility Wednesday for "wrong" intelligence that led to the war, but he said removing Saddam Hussein was still necessary.
"It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," Bush said during his fourth and final speech before Thursday's vote for Iraq's parliament. "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."
"My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision," the president said. "Saddam was a threat and the American people, and the world is better off because he is no longer in power." (Watch Bush accept responsibility for "fixing what went wrong" -- 5:47)
Bush spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Meanwhile, 48 percent of respondents to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll said they thought it was a mistake to send U.S. troops to Iraq, as opposed to 54 percent of those polled last month. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent. Fifty percent said it was not a mistake, compared to 45 percent last month. The president's approval rating is 42 percent -- up 4 percent from November. (Full story)
A successful election in Iraq on Thursday to establish the nation's first permanent, democratically elected government would do much to bolster the theme of Bush's speeches: that his administration's war is working. (Watch Iraqis getting out the vote -- 2:00)
"We are living through a watershed moment in the story of freedom," Bush said. "Iraqis will go to the polls to choose a government that will be the only constitutional democracy in the Arab world. Yet we need to remember that these elections are also a vital part of a broader strategy in protecting the American people against the threat of terrorism." (Transcript)
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania -- a usually hawkish Democrat who has called for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq -- criticized Bush's policy again after the address.
"We've got nation building by the U.S. military, and that's not a mission for the U.S. military," Murtha said. "I've said this over and over again: They're not good at nation building. You've given them a mission which they cannot carry out. They do they best they can, but they can't do it."
Before the speech, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said 41 Democratic senators had sent a letter to Bush "to show that we need to get things right in Iraq after these elections."
"The president has had a number of speeches -- three in number -- and he has still not focused on what needs to be done in convincing the American people and showing the American people what his plan is in Iraq," Reid said.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said the letter urges the Bush administration "to tell the leaders of all groups and political parties in Iraq that they need to make the compromises necessary to achieve the broad-based and sustainable political settlement that is necessary for defeating the insurgency."
"The president still has not stated how long his administration believes the (war) will take and how much it will cost in terms of funding and in terms of the commitment of American military and civilian personnel," Reed said.
In the poll, 49 percent of respondents said neither side is winning the war, 13 percent said the insurgents are winning and 36 percent said the United States is winning.
On Monday, speaking in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the cradle of the U.S. Constitution, Bush compared Iraq's struggles with American history.
"It took a four-year civil war and a century of struggle after that before the promise of our Declaration (of Independence) was extended to all Americans," Bush said. "It is important to keep this history in mind as we look at the progress of freedom and democracy in Iraq." (Transcript)
The president unexpectedly took questions from the audience, including one from a woman who asked Bush how many Iraqi "civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators" had been killed in the war.
"I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," Bush said. "We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan later said Bush was basing his statement on media reports, "not an official government estimate."
About 160,000 American troops are in Iraq. The Pentagon says it hopes to reduce the number to 138,000 by the summer and 100,000 by the end of 2006.
During his speech December 7, Bush said the United States has succeeded in helping Iraq improve its economy and infrastructure -- which he called the "battle after the battle."
"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." (Transcript)
And during his first speech of the series, on November 30, Bush told students at the U.S. Naval Academy, "As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop level in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists." (Transcript)
CNN's Sumi Das and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.