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Audience hits Bush with tough questions on progress

WASHINGTON -- Speaking in the run-up to Iraqi elections, President Bush departed from the largely scripted public events he's used to justify the Iraq war and unexpectedly fielded some tough questions from his audience yesterday, defending his administration's use of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to justify toppling Saddam Hussein and estimating that 30,000 Iraqis have died since the 2003 invasion.

After his talk to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, in which he likened Iraq's political struggles with the setbacks of the early days of American independence, Bush opened the floor to questions -- and found himself facing some skeptics.

One questioner, drawing scattered applause, asked why the president still links the Iraq invasion with the 9/11 attacks, when ''no respected journalist or Middle Eastern expert" has found a direct relationship between Iraq and the Al Qaeda hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

''I appreciate that," Bush responded. Sept. 11 ''changed my look . . . on foreign policy. I mean, it said that oceans no longer protect us; that we can't take threats for granted; that if we see a threat, we've got to deal with it. And so we gave Saddam Hussein the chance to disclose or disarm, and he refused. And I made a tough decision" to use military force against him.

Asked about the country's damaged international prestige, Bush acknowledged that the United States has ''an image issue" but ''we're constantly trying to reassure people." Bush, answering another question, said he believes that the invasion of Iraq has reduced the threat of domestic terrorist attacks, but ''I don't think we're safe."

The president also talked about two statistics that his top aides and military commanders are reluctant to address publicly: the number of Iraqis and US troops who have been killed during the invasion and the ensuing insurgency.

''How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," Bush said.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett later said Bush was not giving an official figure on the deaths but simply repeating public estimates.

Bush used yesterday's speech to highlight what he said has been Iraq's political progress since the invasion ended. He noted that Iraqis have elected a transitional government, adopted a democratic if imperfect constitution, and set the stage for selecting a permanent national government.

Speaking a few blocks from Independence Hall, Bush noted that even America's early beginnings had major setbacks.

''The eight years from the end of the Revolutionary War to the election of a constitutional government were a time of disorder and upheaval," Bush said.

''There were uprisings, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. In 1783, Congress was chased from this city by angry veterans demanding back pay, and they stayed on the run for six months," he said.

''It is important to keep this history in mind as we look at the progress of freedom and democracy in Iraq," he added. ''There's 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."

Bush administration officials were buoyed by an ABC News poll released yesterday that found seven in 10 Iraqis say their own lives are going well despite daily reports of violence. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said they expect things to improve next year.

According to the poll, which queried 1,711 Iraqis ages 15 and older, confidence in the Iraq national army rose from 39 percent two years ago to 67 percent, while confidence in the country's police force was at 68 percent, up from 45 percent in 2003. Respondents' confidence in the US and British military, however, languished at 18 percent.

Delivering a rebuttal, US Representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a former Marine combat officer who voted for the war but has emerged as one of the president's most vocal critics, said the mere presence of US troops motivates insurgents. He said the vast majority of fighters are Iraqis.

''We've become the enemy in Iraq," Murtha, also in Philadelphia, said after Bush's speech. ''So there's no way we can win a war when you've lost . . . the hearts and minds of the people."

The divide between Iraq's Muslims, the Shi'ite majority and Sunni minority, is growing, according to the ABC poll. Confidence in this week's elections was more than 80 percent among Shi'ites and only 48 percent among Sunnis, according to the poll. And while 70 percent of Iraqis overall said their lives are satisfactory, the number of Shi'ites polled who agree increased 21 percent over last year, while the number of like-minded Sunnis -- the ethnic group that is believed to be the backbone of the insurgency -- plunged by 26 points over last year.

Meanwhile, as early voting began for Iraqi soldiers, hospital patients, and prisoners, the Iraqi government announced a nationwide curfew from today to Saturday and closed all international borders.

The election commission called for a halt to US and coalition military operations in insurgent-infested Al Anbar and Ninwa provinces so that citizens could go to the polls -- even as five Islamic militant groups, including Al Qaeda, issued warnings that participating in the ''puppet government" was against Islamic law and vowed to ''continue our holy war."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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