WASHINGTON - The latest rocket and bomb attacks in Baghdad are only the most recent in a series of setbacks for the Bush administration that threaten to turn Iraq into a political liability just as the 2004 election cycle is beginning.
Only last week, the administration suffered a defeat in Congress when the Senate voted to turn part of an $87-billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq into loans rather than outright grants over strong objections from President George W. Bush.
Does the president really believe that suicide bombers are willing to strap explosives to their bodies because we're restoring electricity and creating jobs for Iraqis?
Sen. John Kerry
White House officials quickly threatened that Bush would veto any bill that contained loans, saying Iraq had too much debt already. But their position was undercut on Friday at an international donors conference, where total pledges fell well short of Iraq's estimated needs - and much of the money from other countries was in the form of loans.
For the past few weeks, Bush and other top officials have waged a well-coordinated campaign to counteract what they called overly negative Iraq coverage by the news media. There were some signs that this was having an impact, judging from polls that showed the president's approval rating stabilizing just above 50 percent after months of decline.
Now, the bloody attacks yesterday and Sunday in Baghdad on Red Cross headquarters, three police stations and a hotel housing U.S. personnel threaten to undermine those efforts. "It's been a bad 24 hours," Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged.
Bush held a council of war in the Oval Office yesterday, calling in the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, to discuss the security situation. Also present were Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers; the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid; and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Bush showed no inclination to change course, arguing that the attacks had been launched precisely because U.S. forces were making progress in restoring order to Iraq. "The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react," the president said.
But Bush also seemed to plead with Iraqis to support the U.S. effort in the face of the attacks. "The people have got to understand, the Iraqi people have got to understand that any time you've got a group of killers willing to kill innocent Iraqis, that their future must not be determined by these kind of killers," he said.
Bremer acknowledged that the past two days had been "rough days," but insisted that overall events were moving in the right direction.
Democratic presidential candidates, their onetime reluctance to criticize Bush on Iraq long since set aside, were in full cry. "Does the president really believe that suicide bombers are willing to strap explosives to their bodies because we're restoring electricity and creating jobs for Iraqis?" asked Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
They were joined - in a sense - by a prominent Republican: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, no fan of Bush but a strong supporter of his decision to wage war in Iraq. In an interview with Newsweek, McCain said he saw "a parallel to Vietnam" in the gap between the administration's optimistic statements and the harsh reality on the ground. A McCain aide said the senator was not suggesting Iraq had become a Vietnam-like quagmire and favored deploying more U.S. troops, not fewer. But the aide added McCain believes the administration "needs to level with the American people."
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