WASHINGTON In a somber but combative pre-election review of a long and brutal war, President Bush conceded Wednesday that the United States is taking heavy casualties in Iraq and said, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation" there.
"I'm not satisfied either," he said at a speech and question and answer session at the White House 13 days before midterm elections.
Despite conceding painful losses, Bush said victory was essential in Iraq as part of the broader war on terror.
"We're winning and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done," he said.
Bush said that as those fighting American and Iraqi forces change their strategies, the United States is also adjusting its military tactics.
"Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions," he said.
Several Democratic critics have said that is precisely what the administration is risking with an open-ended commitment of American forces, at a time that a year-old Iraqi government gropes for a compromise that can satisfy Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political interests.
Bush spoke as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the U.S. government has a right to revise its policies as it sees fit. At the same time, the Iraqi leader said talk of timetables for troop withdrawals "is not coming from the inner circles in the U.S. government," but the product of the American election campaign. "And that does not concern us much," al-Maliki said.
"I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it," the Iraqi told reporters.
At his news conference, Bush sought a middle ground in terms of pressing the Iraqis to accept more of the responsibility for their own fate and said that "a fixed timetable for withdrawal in my judgment means defeat."
"We are making it clear that America's patience is not unlimited," Bush added. "We will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear."
Bush spoke as polls showed the public has become strongly opposed to the war, and increasing numbers of Republican candidates have signaled impatience with the president's policies.
As he has repeatedly, Bush predicted that Republicans would hold control of the House and Senate in two weeks' time, despite widespread predictions to the contrary. He jabbed at Democrats who he said are "dancing in the end zone" or measuring the drapes for new offices.
"The American people will decide," who wins, he said.
The president said the world expects Iran and Syria to help quell sectarian violence in Iraq, but he rejected the idea of working directly with Iran while Tehran pursues a nuclear program in defiance of the United Nations.
"If they would verifiably stop their enrichment, the United States would be at the table with them," Bush said.
In his opening moments at the podium in the East Room of the White House, Bush departed starkly from a practice of not talking about specific deaths in Iraq.
"There has been heavy fighting, many enemy fighters have been killed or captured and we've suffered casualties of our own," he said. "This month we've lost 93 American service members in Iraq, the most since October of 2005. During roughly the same period, more than 300 Iraqi security personnel have given their lives in battle. Iraqi civilians have suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of the terrorists, insurgents, illegal militias, armed groups and criminals."
He called these events "a serious concern to me, and a serious concern to the American people."
For all his fervor about the importance of the military mission in Iraq, Bush sidestepped when asked whether the Nov. 7 elections should be viewed as a referendum on the war.
"The election is a referendum on which party has a plan to make the economy grow, and which party has a plan to make the American people safe," he said.
"If we succeed in Iraq, the country (the United States) is more secure. If we don't succeed in Iraq, the country is less secure."
As he has numerous times while campaigning for Republican candidates, Bush said of the Democrats, "I do not question their patriotism. I question whether or not they understand how dangerous the world is."
Bush doggedly defended the job that defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has done. "I'm satisfied at how he's done all his jobs. He's a smart, tough, capable administrator," the president said.
Then, the commander in chief took full responsibility for the war.
"You asked me about accountability. It rests right here," he said, pointing at his chest for emphasis, "That's what the 2004 campaign was all about."
The session was dominated by foreign policy, from Iraq to Iran, Syria and a question about North Korea, the secretive communist regime which recently said it had set off a nuclear test.
"The leader of North Korea likes to threaten. In my judgment what he's doing is testing the will of the five countries that are working together to convince him there's a better way forward for his people."Comment on this story
The president has refused to authorize one-on-one negotiations with North Korea. Instead, talks occur through a multinational group that includes Russia, China, South Korea and Japan as well as the United States.
Bush brushed off a North Korean warning for South Korea to stay clear of sanctions against Pyongyang for a nuclear test, declaring "the coalition remains firm."
"This is not the first time that he's issued threats," he said of President Kim Jong Il, "and our goal is to continue to remind our partners that when we work together, we're more likely to be able to achieve the objective, which is to solve this problem diplomatically."