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Bush to address media amid Iraq, terrorism scrutiny
Updated: 2004-04-14 08:44

U.S. President Bush is expected to seek support for his embattled Iraq policy Tuesday evening in the face of rising casualties and growing doubts, as he holds his first prime-time news conference since before the war. The president is also facing questions about whether he ignored warning signs about the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and botched opportunities to eliminate the al-Qaeda network.

A memo given to Bush a month before the attacks said Osama bin Laden's supporters were in the United States planning attacks with explosives.

Framing his views on Iraq, Bush planned to open the news conference in the East Room of the White House with a 16- to 18-minute statement in effect, a speech about the violence and what's at stake for the United States in holding its ground.

"What we are working to achieve in Iraq is vital to making the world better and making America more secure," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

April has become the deadliest month for the United States in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad a year ago. At least 83 U.S. forces have been killed and more than 560 wounded this month, according to the U.S. military, as American troops fight on three fronts: against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Shiite militiamen in the south and gunmen in Baghdad and on its outskirts. At least 678 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

Iraq figures in Bush's decline in public opinion polls in two areas that are critical for his re-election campaign. Approval of his handling of Iraq has declined to the mid-40 percent level, and approval for his handling of terrorism has dipped into the mid-50s. Growing numbers of people say the military action in Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism.

"I think you have to keep in mind that there are always challenges and difficulties when you're going from decades of oppression to a future of democracy," McClellan said.

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, says the United States should keep control of the military operation in Iraq but recruit other nations to stabilize and rebuild the country.

"Because of the way the White House has run the war, we are left with the United States bearing most of the costs and risks associated with every aspect of the Iraqi transition," Kerry said in a column written for Tuesday's Washington Post.

Kerry also said, "We need more troops and more people who can train Iraqi troops and assist Iraqi police."

McClellan said Bush looks to military commanders to decide whether they need more troops. He said the administration was working closely with the United Nations and with Iraqi leaders on an interim government to assume responsibility on June 30 for a transition period, before elections are held.

It was Bush's first prime-time news conference since March 6, 2003, just days before the opening of the war to depose Saddam Hussein. Bush's only other evening news conference was on Oct. 11, 2001, a month after the terror attacks.

In the hours leading up to Bush's appearance, the national commission investigating Sept. 11 held a televised hearing and issued a report that said a more alert FBI and CIA working together might have uncovered the terrorists' plot. The report detailed an agonizing series of missed opportunities, half-measures and bureaucratic inertia.

Commissioner Thomas H. Kean called it "an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time."

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