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Bush acknowledges troops' `tough week'

WASHINGTON -- President Bush departed yesterday from his practice of not commenting on particular setbacks in Iraq and acknowledged it had been "a tough week." The week ended with the death of the 400th US soldier in Iraq since the war began and the deadly collision of two US Army Black Hawk helicopters.

"We're going to stay tough and deal with the terrorists," Bush said, amid rising questions from Democrats about whether his approaching reelection race will drive a reduction of US forces in Iraq.

Bush typically ignores the cluster of journalists who watch Marine One drop him off on the White House South Lawn after weekends at Camp David. But yesterday he approached the microphones somberly and with no coaxing.

"Today, I spent some time in prayer for our service men and women who are in harm's way," he said before answering questions. "I prayed for their families, I prayed for those who are still in harm's way, whether it be American troops or coalition troops."

Asked about Saturday's chopper crashes, which killed 17 soldiers and marked the military's deadliest disaster since the war began, Bush said: "It's sad. It's a sad day when we lose life. It doesn't matter whether it's in a chopper crash or [improvised explosive devices], the loss of life is sad."

His remarks reflected the view of some aides that as casualties mount, he takes a risk by remaining silent, as he did after the Nov. 2 downing of a Chinook helicopter that killed 16 soldiers.

Bush said the plan, formalized Saturday, to turn the US occupation over to a provisional national assembly by July 1 "makes sense."

"In Iraq, it was a tough week, but we made progress toward a sovereign and free Iraq," he said.

Bush did not commit to a specific duration of deployment of US forces. "We're not leaving until the job is done, pure and simple," he said, adding that the United States will not be run out by developments like the broadcast yesterday of a purported audiotape of Saddam Hussein, which he called "propaganda."

"I'm sure he would like to see us leave," Bush said. "And I know that elements of the Ba'athist Party -- those who used to torture, maim, and kill in order to stay in power -- would like to see us leave. We will do our job."

Sir David Frost asked Bush in an interview, taped Thursday and aired yesterday on the BBC and PBS ahead of a four-day presidential visit to Britain, whether producing a successful democracy in Iraq will take several years.

"We don't think it will be years and years, because first of all, we think the Iraqi people are plenty capable of running their own country, and we think they want to run their own country," Bush said.

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, said in a statement that the new timetable "sounds like another rosy scenario."

"We cannot be seen as cutting and running, or we will only invite further instability and set the stage for years of turmoil that will threaten our national security," he said.

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