WASHINGTON -- Seeking to shore up public support for the Iraq war, President Bush last night hailed the successful election in Iraq as a ''landmark day in the history of liberty," and denounced his domestic critics who believe the war is ''not worth another dime or another day."
In a prime-time address, Bush acknowledged that many Americans have questions about the cost and direction of the war, but he did not spell out new cost figures or announce a schedule for troop reductions.
''This election will not mean the end of violence," the president warned. ''But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote -- 6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world -- means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror."
About 160,000 US troops are in Iraq. The administration has said it hopes to draw down troop levels over the coming year, and Bush said in his speech that as Iraq's military and new government gain strength, ''it should require fewer American troops to accomplish our mission."
''I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see on the ground and the advice of our military leaders, not based on artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington," Bush said.
Earlier in the day, however, Vice President Dick Cheney may have upstaged the president by making a surprise appearance in Iraq and speaking more directly about troop strength. Cheney discussed the possibility of troops withdrawing ''to a few locations" in Iraq, which would ''reduce the total number of personnel we need here."
''I think you will see changes in our deployment patterns, probably within this next year," Cheney said while visiting troops at an air base in Anbar Province.
Bush had particularly harsh words for those who want to withdraw quickly. ''We would cause tyrants in the Middle East to laugh at our failed resolve. . . . To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor -- and I will not allow it."
On March 17, 2003, when Bush gave his final deadline to Saddam Hussein, the president said in an address to the nation that ''intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
Last night, Bush acknowledged that much of that information was faulty. ''It is true that many nations believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. ''But much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. And, as your president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.
''Yet, it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power," Bush said, asserting that Hussein ''made his choice for war. And the result of that war was to rid the world of a murderous dictator who menaced his people, invaded his neighbors, and declared America to be his enemy."
Bush delivered his speech after an extraordinary week of mixed news related to the war on terrorism. The heavy turnout during a mostly peaceful Iraqi election boosted Bush, but he was then buffeted by a report in The New York Times that he authorized eavesdropping on people within the United States without a court order, and then by a Senate filibuster against the extension of the USA Patriot Act.
After Bush acknowledged Saturday to authorizing the eavesdropping and chastised senators who opposed the Patriot Act, his aides hoped the speech last night would enable the president to regain control of the news cycle with a nationally televised address.
A poll released by the Associated Press on Saturday indicated that 57 percent of those surveyed said the US military should stay until Iraq is stabilized.
Still, an increasing number of Democrats and some Republicans have stepped up their criticism of Bush's handling of the war, demanding more specifics about the conflict's cost and duration.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said yesterday that it will be difficult to withdraw troops quickly.
''It's going to be very difficult because we failed to expand the Army and Marine Corps as many of us wanted to happen a long time ago," McCain said on ''This Week" on ABC. ''And it is a very big strain, particularly on our Guard, our National Guard, but we've got to maintain sufficient presence there."
Bush acknowledged the war ''has been especially difficult in Iraq -- more difficult than we expected." But he said that despite the violence in Iraq, the country is making steady progress.
Before Bush spoke last night, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, urged the president to deal with questions about the eavesdropping program and the extension of the Patriot Act, which gives authorities latitude in tracking down people suspected of terrorism ties.
''The president must explain to the American people why he feels he's above the law," Kennedy said. ''Whether it's secret prisons, bending the rules on torture, or domestic spying without court orders, this administration has unnecessarily played fast and loose with law and constitutional protections."
Bush closed his speech by quoting from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. ''And we remember the words of the Christmas carol, written during the Civil War: '' 'God is not dead, nor [does] He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, good-will to men.' "
Material from wire services was included in this report.