"Sadly, Mr Bush wasted his opportunity last night, giving a speech that only answered questions no one was asking," said the New York Times on Wednesday, referring to Bush's mantra that a stable and democratic Iraq would be worth US sacrifices. 

"We did not expect Mr Bush would apologise for the misinformation that helped lead us into this war, or for the catastrophic mistakes his team made in running the military operation.

"But we had hoped he would resist the temptation to raise the bloody flag of 9/11 over and over again to justify a war in a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks," said the daily.

Rather than explain that "it will take years before the Iraqi government and its military are able to stand on their own" and that "all those years of effort and suffering" could still result in civil war, Bush offered "the usual emotional rhetoric about the advance of freedom", added the Times.

Not weakening

The president, "once again ... missed an opportunity to fully level with Americans", said The Washington Post.

"The president's evasion of the hardest facts about Iraq is coupled with a reluctance to candidly describe the likely price of success," it added.

The "insurgency" in Iraq, the Post editorial said, "is not growing weaker". Iraqi troops "will not be ready to take over from US units for several years", and the US-Iraqi force is "nowhere large enough" to stabilise the country, it added.

"Mr Bush's account of his strategy for Iraq, which has remained virtually unchanged in the past year, does not answer the worrying questions raised by these facts," the Post said.

And while Iraq's connection with September 11 "is not spurious" since Iraq is now crawling with terrorists, the Post added, Bush "did not explain how a war meant to remove a tyrant believed to wield weapons of mass destruction turned into a fight against Muslim militants, a transformation caused in part by his administration's many errors" since Saddam Hussein was toppled two years ago.

If Bush wants US forces to succeed in Iraq, the Post said, it "will mean speaking more honestly to Americans than he did last night".

Bush "cannot continue to obsess about self-justification and the need to colour Iraq with the memory of 9/11", The New York Times said. "The nation does not want it and cannot afford it."

Restoring resolve

USA Today was more lenient, calling his speech "a belated effort to restore the nation's resolve and buy time" that "outlined a sound, steadfast approach to dealing with the mess that Iraq has become".

"Winning back public support for completing the job in Iraq starts with a more straightforward approach to the public. Tuesday night was a beginning," said the nationally distributed daily.

However, it also expressed regret that "there was no acknowledgement of the misjudgements that many Americans now see plainly, but Bush seems unable or unwilling to recognise".