“Reconstruction has not always gone as well as we had hoped, primarily because of the security challenges on the ground,” he said in formal remarks on Iraq ahead of the war-torn country’s crucial December 15 elections.
Mr Bush cited opposition Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman’s support for his Iraq strategy after a trip to see US-led reconstruction and stabilisation efforts first-hand.
“The senator says that mistakes have been made. But he goes on to say that he’s worried about a bigger mistake,” namely a US pullout before Iraqis can keep order themselves, said Mr Bush. “Senator Lieberman is right.”
“Withdrawing on an artificial deadline would endanger the American people, would harm our military and make the Middle East less stable,” he said. “It would give the terrorists exactly what they want.”
The comments came in the second of a series of speeches aiming to reverse a steady slide in public support for his administration’s efforts in Iraq, where a deadly insurgency has claimed the lives of more than 2,100 US troops.
Some of Mr Bush’s Republicans have worried that the party may pay a steep price for the problems in Iraq when US voters go to the polls in November 2006 legislative and gubernatorial elections.
In the first such speech, on November 30, the president touted much progress despite “some setbacks” in training the fledgling Iraq force s he says will eventually allow Washington to bring home its roughly 160,000 troops.
On Wednesday, Mr Bush said economic reconstruction efforts had yielded “uneven” results but were paying off and blamed ousted Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein for the shabby state of his country’s water and electric infrastructure.
“Rebuilding a nation devastated by a dictator is a large undertaking. It’s even harder when terrorists are trying to blow up that which the Iraqis are trying to build,” he said.
While the process has sometimes moved in “fits and starts,” he said, “like our approach to training Iraqi security forces, our approach to helping Iraqis rebuild has changed and improved.”
The president specifically pointed to reconstruction efforts in the cities of Najaf and Mosul, where he said Iraqis were “gaining a personal stake in a peaceful future” because of “tangible progress” on economic issues.
Mr Bush said one lesson learned when reconstruction began after the April 2003 fall of Baghdad was that large-scale infrastructure projects sometimes did not meet urgent Iraqi needs and made inviting targets for extremists.
“Delivering visible progress to the Iraqi people required us to focus on projects that could be completed rapidly,” like sewer lines and city roads, he said.
Mr Bush said the US had helped conduct 3,000 school renovation projects, train 30,000 teachers, distribute more than eight million textbooks, rebuild irrigation infrastructure to help some 400,000 Iraqis, and improve drinking water for more than three million Iraqis.
Washington has helped Iraq introduce a new currency, re-open its stock exchange, provide 21 million dollars in credit to small businesses and individuals, leading to the registration of some 30,000 new Iraqi businesses, he said.
“This is quiet, steady progress. It doesn’t always make the headlines in the evening news. But it’s real, and it’s important and it is unmistakable to those who see it close up,” said the president.
Democratic lawmakers accused Mr Bush of glossing over problems in Iraq ahead of the elections.
“As he did last week, the president once again failed to provide a strategy for success or speak honestly to the American people about the failures in rebuilding Iraq and the challenges that lie ahead,” said Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate.
Representative Henry Waxman called the president’s claims “mindboggling”.