WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowledged yesterday that the multibillion-dollar reconstruction of Iraq has ''been uneven" and hobbled by corruption, misplaced priorities, and insurgent attacks, but maintained that ''quiet, steady progress" would ultimately transform the country.
In an unusually earnest assessment of the situation in Iraq, Bush described several strategic errors in managing a rebuilding effort that he said proceeded in ''fits and starts." By learning from its mistakes, Bush said, the administration has reshaped its approach and he held out two key cities as models of success to be replicated across Iraq.
''Reconstruction has not always gone as well as we had hoped, primarily because of the security challenges on the ground," Bush said in a speech to foreign policy veterans. ''Rebuilding a nation devastated by a dictator is a large undertaking. It's even harder when terrorists are trying to blow up that which the Iraqis are trying to build. The terrorists and Saddamists have been able to slow progress, but they haven't been able to stop it."
The address, the second of four in the days leading up to the Iraqi parliamentary elections Dec. 15, continued an effort to reach out to an increasingly disillusioned public with a more detailed and less triumphal portrait of the advances and setbacks on the ground. While still projecting confidence about the prospects for victory in Iraq, the speech included striking concessions for a president who has repeatedly avoided admitting mistakes out of the conviction that it signals weakness.
''That kind of direct leveling with the country will buy him and the administration some time and space," said Richard Haass, a former Bush State Department official who has been critical of the administration's foreign policy. ''It's realistic. It's not overreaching. This kind of realism will stand him in good stead because it won't create unrealistic expectations."
Some leading Democrats, on the other hand, found it too little, too late. ''His comments this morning were more of the same vague generalities that he has invoked in the past, buttressed by positive anecdotes," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland. ''However, anecdotes do not constitute a plan. Nor do they convey the real-world challenges on the ground."
Representative John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, a hawk who created a stir by calling for US troops to be withdrawn as soon as practical, said the Bush team has never owned up to the reality of the quagmire. ''They kept being unrealistic, illusionary about what was going on in Iraq," he told a news conference. Despite US efforts, ''we lost the hearts and minds of the people."
At the same time, House Democrats emerged from a caucus without a consensus on an alternative Iraq policy. While Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California endorsed Murtha's proposal last week, other congressional Democrats consider that an unwise and impractical move that would further destabilize Iraq while casting the party as defeatist as next year's midterm elections approach.
Bush took aim at Murtha, Pelosi, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean in yesterday's speech. ''I reject the pessimists in Washington who say we can't win this war," the president said, again refusing to set a timetable for pulling out US troops.
The White House designed the four speeches to address deepening public concerns about the war. Bush launched such an effort this summer, only to drop it amid Hurricane Katrina, the CIA leak case, and other issues, but his advisers have grown increasingly anxious about the political costs of the war at home as his poll numbers have plummeted. Bush is scheduled to speak in Philadelphia on Monday and again in Washington next Wednesday before the Iraqis vote Thursday.
After sticking mainly to friendly military settings in recent months, Bush chose a more skeptical audience yesterday in addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan organization of diplomats, academics, and journalists.
The White House was not allowed to hang its usual slogans, such as ''Plan for Victory," behind the presidential lectern. At the same time, Bush refused to honor the council tradition of taking questions from the audience, as President Clinton did in 1998 and Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others have more recently. Haass, the council president, said he decided it was worth making an exception as Bush became only the second sitting president to address the council.
Congress has approved $20.9 billion for reconstruction in Iraq, of which $17.5 billion has been obligated and $12 billion spent, according to the State Department. About 25 percent of spending on those projects that have gone forward has gone to security.
Without ever using the words ''mistake" or ''error," Bush said the administration miscalculated by clearing insurgents out of a city and then moving onto another assignment, only to allow enemy forces to retake control.
It also focused on large reconstruction projects -- ''yet we found our approach was not meeting the priorities of the Iraqi people" -- so it switched to local projects such as sewer lines and city roads. He said ''corruption is a problem at both the national and local levels" and ''another problem is the infiltration of militia groups into some Iraqi security forces."
But Bush said the administration has ''changed and improved" its approach and held out the cities of Najaf and Mosul as models.