Bush admits mistakes in Iraq, prods Baghdad
CHARLOTTE, NC, April 6 (Reuters) President George W Bush admitted today the US military made mistakes in Iraq but defended his domestic eavesdropping program, insisting to a hostile questioner he had no reason to apologize for it.
Beset by low approval ratings dragged down by pessimism over Iraq, Bush also signaled impatience with Iraqi leaders and urged them to break their deadlock and form a national unity government seen as crucial to averting sectarian civil war.
Trying to rally sagging US support for the war, Bush went to a Republican Southern stronghold for the latest in a series of speeches meant to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he has a winning strategy in Iraq.
In some of his frankest language so far, Bush responded to a question on what he could have done differently in Iraq by acknowledging the United States could have moved faster in training Iraqi troops and police.
He said Iraqi security forces were originally trained to handle external threats but instead the threat came from inside the country, from al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
''In retrospect, we could've done better,'' Bush said. But he insisted the overall US strategy in Iraq had been correct.
Bush said he was ''just as disappointed as everybody else was'' about erroneous pre-war US intelligence on Iraq. US officials had said they had evidence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction but none were found.
Bush also said the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison ''hurt us in the international arena particularly in the Muslim world.'' CIVIL RIGHTS STAND QUESTIONED Bush played to a mostly sympathetic college audience of more than 900 in Charlotte, North Carolina. But as he stood atop a stage in a town-hall format, one questioner launched into a scathing attack of the kind Bush has rarely faced at public events where attendance is often tightly controlled.
''You never stop talking about freedom, which I appreciate, but while I'm listening to you talk about freedom I see you assert your right to tap my telephone, to arrest me and hold me without charges,'' Harry Taylor told Bush to a chorus of boos.
He was referring to Bush's warrant-less domestic eavesdropping program, which civil liberties advocates have condemned as a violation of Americans' rights.
Taylor politely but firmly skewered Bush, telling the president he hoped he had ''the grace to be ashamed of yourself.'' Bush responded that he was doing what was necessary to protect Americans from another September 11 attack by allowing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on domestic phone calls and e-mails that officials suspect are linked to al Qaeda contacts overseas.
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