Three days ago, in large numbers, Iraqis went to the polls to choose their own leaders – a landmark day in the history of liberty. In coming weeks, the ballots will be counted … a new government formed … and a people who suffered in tyranny for so long will become full members of the free world.
This election will not mean the end of violence. But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote – 6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world – means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror.
All who had a part in this achievement – Iraqis, Americans, and Coalition partners – can be proud. Yet our work is not done. There is more testing and sacrifice before us. I know many Americans have questions about the cost and direction of this war. So tonight I want to talk to you about how far we have come in Iraq, and the path that lies ahead.
From this office, nearly three years ago, I announced the start of military operations in Iraq. Our Coalition confronted a regime that defied United Nations Security Council Resolutions … violated a cease-fire agreement … sponsored terrorism … and possessed, we believed, weapons of mass destruction. After the swift fall of Baghdad, we found mass graves filled by a dictator … we found some capacity to restart programs to produce weapons of mass destruction … but we did not find those weapons.
It is true that Saddam Hussein had a history of pursuing and using weapons of mass destruction. It is true that he systematically concealed those programs, and blocked the work of UN weapons inspectors. It is true that many nations believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. And as your President, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.
Yet it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power. He was given an ultimatum – and he made his choice for war. And the result of that war was to rid the world of a murderous dictator who menaced his people, invaded his neighbors, and declared America to be his enemy. Saddam Hussein, captured and jailed, is still the same raging tyrant – only now without a throne. His power to harm a single man, woman, or child is gone forever. And the world is better for it.
Since the removal of Saddam, this war – like other wars in our history – has been difficult. The mission of American troops in urban raids and desert patrols – fighting Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists – has brought danger and suffering and loss. This loss has caused sorrow for our whole Nation – and it has led some to ask if we are creating more problems than we are solving.
That is an important question, and the answer depends on your view of the war on terror. If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone.
This is not the threat I see. I see a global terrorist movement that exploits Islam in the service of radical political aims – a vision in which books are burned, and women are oppressed, and all dissent is crushed. Terrorist operatives conduct their campaign of murder with a set of declared and specific goals – to de-moralize free nations … to drive us out of the Middle East … to spread an empire of fear across that region … and to wage a perpetual war against America and our friends. These terrorists view the world as a giant battlefield – and they seek to attack us wherever they can. This has attracted al Qaeda to Iraq, where they are attempting to frighten and intimidate America into a policy of retreat.
The terrorists do not merely object to American actions in Iraq and elsewhere – they object to our deepest values and our way of life. And if we were not fighting them in Iraq … in Afghanistan … in Southeast Asia … and in other places, the terrorists would not be peaceful citizens – they would be on the offense, and headed our way.
September 11th, 2001 required us to take every emerging threat to our country seriously, and it shattered the illusion that terrorists attack us only after we provoke them. On that day, we were not in Iraq … we were not in Afghanistan … but the terrorists attacked us anyway – and killed nearly 3,000 men, women, and children in our own country. My conviction comes down to this: We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them. And we will defeat the terrorists by capturing and killing them abroad … removing their safe havens … and strengthening new allies like Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight we share.
This work has been especially difficult in Iraq – more difficult than we expected. Reconstruction efforts and the training of Iraqi Security Forces started more slowly than we hoped. We continue to see violence and suffering, caused by an enemy that is determined and brutal – unconstrained by conscience or the rules of war.
Some look at the challenges in Iraq, and conclude that the war is lost, and not worth another dime or another day. I don't believe that. Our military commanders do not believe that. Our troops in the field, who bear the burden and make the sacrifice, do not believe that America has lost. And not even the terrorists believe it. We know from their own communications that they feel a tightening noose – and fear the rise of a democratic Iraq.
The terrorists will continue to have the coward's power to plant roadside bombs and recruit suicide bombers. And you will continue to see the grim results on the evening news. This proves that the war is difficult – it does not mean that we are losing. Behind the images of chaos that terrorists create for the cameras, we are making steady gains with a clear objective in view.
America, our Coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working toward the same goal – a democratic Iraq that can defend itself … that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists … and that will serve as a model of freedom for the Middle East.
We have put in place a strategy to achieve this goal – a strategy I have been discussing in detail over the last few weeks. This plan has three critical elements.
First, our Coalition will remain on the offense – finding and clearing out the enemy … transferring control of more territory to Iraqi units … and building up the Iraqi Security Forces so they can increasingly lead the fight. At this time last year, there were only a handful of Iraqi army and police battalions ready for combat. Now, there are more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions fighting the enemy … more than 50 are taking the lead … and we have transferred more than a dozen military bases to Iraqi control.