Three days before Iraqis go to the polls to elect a new government, President Bush is hailing their commitment to democracy while acknowledging the high price they have paid in human lives.
The president went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of American democracy, to offer his support for the political process in Iraq.
He said the Iraqi people have defied violence in the pursuit of freedom, displaying both courage and determination. As they prepare to go to the polls once again, he said they have reason to be proud. "It is a remarkable transformation for a country that has virtually no experience with democracy and which is struggling to overcome the legacy of one of the worst tyrannies the world has known. And Iraqis achieved all this while determined enemies used violence and destruction to stop the progress," he said.
Mr. Bush said, like the founders of the United States, the leaders of this young Iraqi democracy continue to face great challenges as they form an inclusive government, pursue reconciliation, and implement the rule of law. But he said the last few years have been a time of achievement. "There is still a lot of difficult work to be done in Iraq, but thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people, the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq," he said.
President Bush said the Iraqi people have shown time and time again that they choose freedom over terrorism. He said he believes they can ultimately resolve the differences that have divided Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, predicting there will be no civil war. And he stressed his belief a democratic Iraq can live up to the threats it faces living in a "tough neighborhood."
"The vast majority of Iraqis do not want to live under an Iranian style theocracy and they don't want Syria to allow the transit of bombers and killers into Iraq and the United States of America will stand with the Iraqi people against the threats from these neighbors," he said.
The comments came in a speech to the World Affairs Council, a private group that seeks to foster public interest in international relations. Unlike his earlier speeches on Iraq, the president remained behind after his formal remarks to take a few questions from his audience.
When one woman asked about how many Iraqis have died since the March 2003 invasion, Mr. Bush did what the Pentagon has been reluctant to do. He offered numbers. "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We have lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."
Another question dealt with possible links between the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the president's decision to oust Saddam Hussein. President Bush said if he had it to do all over again, he would do the same thing. "And knowing what I know today I would make the same decision again. Removing Saddam Hussein made the world a better place and America a safer country," he said.
Public skepticism about the Iraq war has led in recent months to the lowest approval ratings of Mr. Bush's presidency, although latest surveys have showed a small rebound. His series of speeches on Iraq was designed, in large part, to increase support among Americans for what Mr. Bush calls his strategy for victory. The final speech will be in Washington on Wednesday.