In a somber, pre-election review of a long and brutal war, US President George W. Bush conceded yesterday that the US is taking heavy casualties and said, "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq."
"I'm not satisfied either," he said at a speech and question and answer session at the White House 13 days before Nov. 7 elections in which Republican control of the House of Representatives and the Senate is at stake.
Bush declared that patience had its limits but said he would not put unbearable pressure on Iraq's leaders to end the bloodshed.
He said the US was determined to stay the course in Iraq but with adjusted tactics to confront a changing enemy.
"Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions," he said.
He said he would not leave US troops caught in the crossfire of sectarian violence and would bring them home tomorrow "if I did not think our mission in Iraq was vital to American security."
Bush, echoing comments in Baghdad on Tuesday by his top military and civilians officials in Iraq, said the Iraqi government had agreed to a "schedule" of political and security steps aimed at forging a united, stable democracy.
The US was pressing Iraqi leaders to take "bold steps" but "we are making it clear that American patience is not unlimited," Bush said.
Even so, he added, "We will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear."
Bush also voiced qualified confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"We're with him as long as he continues to make tough decisions," Bush said.
Maliki had distanced himself yesterday from the US-announced "timeline" to end sectarian violence and criticized a raid on a Shiite militia stronghold yesterday aimed at a death squad leader.
"The Americans have the right to review their policies but we do not believe in a timetable and no one will impose one on us," Maliki, a Shiite, told a news conference in Baghdad.
He also contradicted a US military statement which said the Iraqi-US ground and air assault on the Sadr City district of Baghdad, in which four people were killed, had been authorized by his government.
"We will be seeking an explanation from the multinational forces to avoid a repetition of what happened without our cooperation in advance," Maliki said.
Bush said a timetable for a withdrawal of the 140,000 US troops in Iraq was different from such "benchmarks."
"This notion of a fixed timetable of withdrawal, in my judgment, means defeat. We can't leave until the job is done," Bush said.
He said Maliki was right that no outside power could force him into actions because Iraq was a sovereign country.
Maliki too insisted he was not working to any deadlines, though he did repeat that he would deal with sectarian militias responsible for much of the bloodletting.
The differences over the raid on Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, illustrated the conflicting political pressures on Maliki and his US allies. Sadr is a powerful force behind Maliki, who has struggled to balance the competing demands of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in his unity coalition.
The US military said Iraqi special forces backed by US air strikes conducted the raid "to capture a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death squad activity." It was not clear whether the commander had been captured or killed in the assault.