Bush vows no letup in Iraq or war on terror

Friday, November 5th 2004, 6:56 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bolstered by a hard-fought election victory, President Bush says the United States will vigorously pursue wars in Iraq and against terror and will not retreat from trying to spread democracy through the Middle East.

``I understand, in certain capitals and certain countries, those decisions were not popular,'' Bush said at his first post-election news conference Thursday. But he was unapologetic about the course he has set and said he would not back down.

Before flying to his retreat at Camp David to rest after the grueling campaign, Bush took congratulatory calls from world leaders and met with his Cabinet to discuss his second term. He said he has not made any decisions about personnel changes, although some turnover is inevitable in his Cabinet and White House staff.

The first job to change hands could be attorney general, since John Ashcroft might leave even before the second term begins, senior aides said Thursday. Others expected to leave _ although maybe not immediately _ include Secretary of State Colin Powell, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

As U.S. forces in Iraq mobilize for an all-out offensive in Fallujah and other Sunni militant strongholds, the president refused to say how much the war would cost or whether he planned to increase or cut troop strengths. ``I have yet to hear from our commanders on the ground that they need more troops,'' the president said.

He is expected to ask Congress early next year for up to $75 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan and operations against terrorism.

The White House said it saw a new opportunity to advance Mideast peace now that Bush has won a second term and Israel has taken steps to withdraw from Gaza after nearly 40 years of occupation.

``I think it's very important for our friends the Israelis to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border,'' Bush said. ``It's very important for the Palestinian people to have a peaceful, hopeful future.''

Bush did not go as far as British Prime Minister Tony Blair in declaring that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the world's most important political challenge.

``I agree with him that the Middle East peace is a very important part of a peaceful world,'' said Bush. One factor in Mideast peace talks is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom a senior Palestinian official said was in a coma in a French hospital.

Bush reaffirmed his policy, enunciated in June 2002, of an independent Palestinian state existing at peace with Israel. The U.S.-backed plan for peace, known as the road map, called for the new Palestinian state in 2005. ``My hope is that we'll make good progress,'' Bush said.

The president sees the war in Iraq as part of a drive to establish a stable democracy in the Middle East, a model for the rest of the region. ``And I fully understand that that might rankle some, and be viewed by some as folly,'' Bush said. ``I just strongly disagree with those who do not see the wisdom of trying to promote free societies around the world.''

After a U.S. election in which voters said the primary issue was moral values, Bush cautioned against suggestions that the United States was becoming politically divided by religion.

``I will be your president regardless of your faith, and I don't expect you to agree with me necessarily on religion,'' Bush said. ``As a matter of fact, no president should ever try to impose religion on our society. ... The great thing that unites is the fact you can worship freely if you choose, and if you _ you don't have to worship.''

Bush was the first president in 68 years to win re-election while his party gained seats in both the House and Senate. He said Americans have embraced his conservative agenda.

``I'll reach out to everyone who shares our goals,'' said Bush. A day earlier, he had promised to try to win over those who voted for his Democratic opponent.

``I've earned capital in this election _ and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is _ you've heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror,'' the president said.