WASHINGTON -- On the first anniversary of his famous declaration from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations in Iraq were over, President Bush yesterday defended the speech and insisted that progress has been made despite continuing problems there.
''A year ago, I did give the speech from the carrier, saying that we had achieved an important objective, that we had accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein," Bush said in the Rose Garden after meeting with Canada's prime minister, Paul Martin. ''And as a result, there are no longer chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq. As a result, a friend of terror has been removed and now sits in jail."
Bush's triumphant appearance in a green flight suit on the Lincoln's deck and his remarks beneath a ''Mission Accomplished" banner were widely thought to be bountiful material for his reelection campaign.
He told cheering soldiers and an American television audience that ''major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
But on today's anniversary of that speech, violence is claiming the lives of more US soldiers than at any other point during the war, and public support for the president's handling of Iraq has plummeted. April, when 136 soldiers were killed in Iraq, was the deadliest month of conflict since the war began.
As he has before, Bush acknowledged that ''we've had some tough times," but he vowed to stay the course and restore democracy in Iraq. And with his approach in Iraq criticized by some political opponents in the United States and by some foreign governments, the president suggested that racism fuels the belief of some who don't think Muslims can handle self-government.
''You know, there's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free, can self-govern," Bush said. ''I reject that. I reject that strongly."
The president continued on that theme, saying, ''I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern."
Bush frequently talks about religion but rarely about race. Some Muslims in the United States rejected his comments yesterday as an effort to characterize in harshly negative terms opponents of his policies.
''Criticism has been very tough for him to handle," said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. ''To call them racists is an indication of desperation."
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Muslim advocacy group, said he has met Bush three times and does not question the sincerity of the president's opposition to racism. But Marayati said Muslims want more from Bush than a condemnation of racism.
''The challenge is not his personal opinion; it's his policies," Marayati said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not specify who believes that Muslims in the Middle East are incapable of self-government. Instead, he reiterated the points the president made.
''There are people who say the Middle East, that some Middle Eastern countries, that the people in those Middle Eastern countries cannot be free," McClellan said. ''There are certainly people out there that reject the idea that certain people can be free."
Marayati and Ibish said many Muslims are unhappy with the way the United States has responded to the resistance to the American occupation of Iraq and to Bush's embrace of a unilateral plan from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel that calls for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip while leaving some Jewish settlements in place in the West Bank.
The Bush administration has said that the US military is doing everything it can to minimize civilian deaths in Iraq and that Sharon's plan is a historic opportunity to rejuvenate the peace process.