President Bush estimated Monday that 30,000 Iraqis have died in the war since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003, but he offered no...

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PHILADELPHIA — President Bush estimated Monday that 30,000 Iraqis have died in the war since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003, but he offered no second thoughts about ordering the attack and said the threat of terrorism against the United States has subsided as a result.

“Knowing what I know today, I’d make the decision again,” Bush told a questioner after a speech in Philadelphia. “Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country.”

The estimate marked the first time Bush has personally provided an assessment of the Iraqi death toll, a highly sensitive subject that his administration largely avoids discussing at any level, much less from the presidential lectern. Although the Pentagon keeps careful track of Americans killed in Iraq — now exceeding 2,100 troops — military officers have said they do not count Iraqi dead.

Bush cautioned that further casualties lie ahead, casting Iraq as the key battleground in a war with terrorist groups that could play out elsewhere as well.

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“The long run in this war is going to require a change in governments in parts of the world,” he said.

Bush did not elaborate on which ones he had in mind, but a few moments later he mentioned his confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear program, and earlier he had tough words for two of Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria.

The comments came during a rare audience question-and-answer session after a speech in Philadelphia on Iraq’s upcoming elections, the third of four speeches leading up to Thursday’s vote.

After being criticized for not honoring the custom of taking questions at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week, the president opened the floor after his address to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

The first person he called on was Didi Goldmark, 63, a former libel lawyer from nearby New Hope, Pa., who asked him how many Iraqis have died in the war. Unlike aides who have been asked that question, Bush gave a direct answer.

“I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis,” he said. “We’ve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.”

As of Monday, at least 2,145 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war, according to an Associated Press count. The military said a soldier was killed Monday by a bomb in Baghdad and reported another died Sunday in a suicide bombing near Ramadi.

Bush moved on to the next question without identifying how he arrived at the figure or how many were killed by U.S. forces and not Iraqi insurgents and foreign militants. Aides later said it was not a government estimate but a reflection of figures in news-media reports.

The Iraqi death toll has been the subject of considerable debate. A group of British researchers and anti-war activists called Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties between 27,383 and 30,892, not counting Iraqi troops or insurgents, by tabulating incidents reported in media and human-rights reports. Iraqi authorities have said roughly 800 people die each month in violence there, a rate that if typical over the course of the conflict would come to 25,600.

An epidemiological study published in the British journal The Lancet last year estimated 100,000 Iraqi deaths in the first 18 months since the invasion, based on door-to-door interviews in selected neighborhoods extrapolated across the country. Other experts and human-rights groups considered that estimate inflated.

Bush used his speech to hail progress toward a new democratic order in Iraq. While acknowledging “challenges, setbacks and false starts,” he defended his insistence on pushing forward with a succession of deadlines despite his administration’s failure to win acceptance by the Sunni Arab minority.

Speaking at a hotel just blocks from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was debated, he noted that America traveled a rocky road forging its democracy.

“This week elections won’t be perfect, and a successful vote is not the end of the process. Iraqis still have more difficult work ahead,” he said.

Still, Bush said, with Iraqis turning out three times in crucial votes, “the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East, and the history of freedom.”

Some of the five questions Bush took from the audience challenged his assertions. Faeze Woodville, 44, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran and now living in Stratford, Pa., asked why Bush keeps linking the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the Iraq war despite no evidence of a direct connection.

The president said “9/11 changed my look on foreign policy” and he learned “that if we see a threat we’ve got to deal with it.”

Woodville said in an interview afterward that she believed Bush ducked her question. “There is no link, and he knows it as well as I. And I and others in the audience are insulted … ,” she said.

Other issues

U.S. image: Bush acknowledged the United States has “an image issue” abroad, and he blamed it on Arabic television stations “that are constantly just pounding America.”

“Success will help the image of the United States,” Bush said. “Look, I recognize we got an image issue, particularly when you’ve got Arabic television stations — that are constantly just pounding America, saying ‘America is fighting Islam,’ ‘Americans can’t stand Muslims,’ ‘This is a war against a religion.’ “

The U.S. government-financed Arabic-language television service, Alhurra, carried Bush’s remarks live, but they were not shown on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya or any of the Iraqi television stations.

Terror threat: When asked if the threat of terrorism in the United States has been reduced significantly since the Iraq invasion, Bush said, “I think it’s been reduced. I don’t think we’re safe. What’ll really give me confidence to say that we’re safe is when I can tell the American people we’ve got the capacity to know exactly where the enemy is moving.”

Iraq prison abuses: He also spoke out against Iraqi-run prisons where inmates — mostly members of the Sunni Arab minority — were apparently victims of abuse at the hands of Shiite-dominated security services.

Some prisoners “appeared to have been beaten and tortured,” Bush said.

Iraq troops: Asked for an assessment of training of Iraqi troops, Bush said they are making progress, although they still are not able to provide their own protection.

Additional information from The Associated Press and Reuters

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