U.S. President George W. Bush embraced the new leadership in Iraq as a turning point in the war but claimed only gradual progress in years of fighting and acknowledged that Americans are uneasy about the outcome.
"I can understand why people are concerned about whether or not our strategy can succeed because our progress is incremental," Bush said Monday in his first speech since the swearing in of a new Iraqi government over the weekend. "Freedom is moving but it's in incremental steps, and the enemy's progress is almost instant on their TV screens."
Bush acknowledged the American lives lost in Iraq, past mistakes and tough days to come. He repeatedly returned to the word "incremental" to describe progress there.
But Bush grabbed onto the political news coming out of Iraq as a way to support his mission in the unpopular war and declare a measure of victory over terrorists.
"The progress we've made has been hard-fought, and it's been incremental," Bush said in remarks to the National Restaurant Association. "There have been setbacks and missteps, like Abu Ghraib, that were felt immediately and have been difficult to overcome. Yet we have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror.
"The terrorists fought this moment with all their hateful power, with suicide attacks and beheadings and roadside bombs," he continued. "And now the day they feared has arrived. And with it's come a moment of great clarity: The terrorists can kill the innocent, but they cannot stop the advance of freedom."
Bush administration officials have said the establishment of a new government is a key step toward stabilizing Iraq and making discussion of an eventual American troop pullout possible. But they said it was unlikely to lead to a reduction of violence anytime soon.
Bush will meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the United States' most steadfast ally in the war, at the White House on Thursday and Friday to talk about Iraq. Like Bush, Blair has dropped in the polls. The two leaders are not expected to announce specific troop cutback targets at a joint news conference. They are to meet over dinner Thursday and Blair is expected to return for lunch Friday.
Also on Monday, Bush spoke by phone with King Abdullah of Jordan about the new government in Iraq, White House spokesman Frederick Jones said. Details of their conversation were not disclosed.
Bush spoke in a packed auditorium at McCormick Place, and he won widespread applause for his pledge to stick to the fight. But it appeared not everyone in the audience was supportive, some sat with their hands folded or arms crossed while Bush talked about the progress.
As Bush was basking in a standing ovation at the end of his speech, one woman shouted, "What about the weapons of mass destruction?"
The president did not answer her, but he invited other questions. He got more friendly queries about taxes, health care, dependence on foreign oil, restrictions on the Canadian border, relations with Latin America, preparations for a bird flu outbreak and his advice for making the country a better place, reports the AP.