Bush: Terrorists converging on Iraq, US must stay

One of the most important battle fronts in this war on terror is Iraq

NAMPA, Idaho – President George W. Bush said on Wednesday terrorists had converged on Iraq and pulling U.S. troops out would only «embolden» them, as he sought to counter increased anti-war sentiment in the United States.

He also pointedly gave the example of a military mother who supported the Iraq war, in contrast to Cindy Sheehan who started a protest outside Bush’s Texas ranch and has become a symbol for the anti-war movement.

«One of the most important battle fronts in this war on terror is Iraq,» Bush said to an audience of about 9,500, including members of the Idaho National Guard and other military branches.

«The stakes in Iraq could not be higher. The brutal violence in Iraq today is a clear sign of the terrorists’ determination to stop democracy from taking root in the Middle East,» Bush said.

His comments came on a day when dozens of insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles attacked police checkpoints in Baghdad.

More than 1,800 American troops have been killed in Iraq. The Bush administration’s initial justification for the war was that Iraq posed a threat because it had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. None were found.

Bush has increasingly tied staying in Iraq to the need to fight terrorism following the September 11, 2001, attacks. Critics say the administration is trying to shift justification for the war despite lack of evidence linking prewar Iraq and September 11.

A Harris poll released on Wednesday showed Bush’s approval rating dropping to 40 percent, while 58 percent had a negative opinion. The previous Harris poll in June had Bush’s approval rating at 45 percent, versus 55 percent disapproval.

Forty-one percent of respondents considered Iraq the most important issue facing the country, up from 24 percent in June, according to the telephone poll of 1,217 Americans between August 9 and 16. Other recent polls have shown growing unease among Americans with the Iraq war.

Bush mentioned Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, twice by name in his speech as an example of what U.S. forces are fighting.

Zarqawi’s group has claimed responsibility for a failed rocket attack on U.S. Navy ships in Jordan’s port of Aqaba.

Foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya are targeting Iraqi civilians with car bombs and suicide attacks, Bush said.

«We will stay on the offense. We’ll complete our work in Afghanistan and Iraq,» Bush said. «An immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq or the broader Middle East, as some have called for, would only embolden the terrorists and create a staging ground to launch more attacks against America and free nations,» he said.

«So long as I’m the president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terror,» Bush said.

Bush’s comments came a day before the Iraqi parliament was due to vote on a new constitution backed by the Shi’ite-led government but opposed by minority Sunnis.

He said establishment of a constitution would be a landmark event, but that «Iraqis are now at the beginning of a long process.»

Bush sought to defuse arguments by military families protesting the Iraq war.

He quoted Tammy Pruett, whose husband and five sons have served or are deployed in Iraq, as saying if something happened to one of them, they had fought for what they believed.

«America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruett’s,» Bush said, and kissed Tammy Pruett on the cheek after his speech.

Pruett later told reporters the experience of her sons serving in the military had strengthened her family. «We’re doing the right thing,» she said of Iraq.

Bush met with 19 military families following his speech.

Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, has sought a second meeting with Bush and wants U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq. Bush has no plans to meet Sheehan after meeting her last year after her 24-year-old son died. Sheehan was to return to her vigil outside Bush’s ranch later on Wednesday after going to California to care for her ailing mother.

Gold Star Families for Peace, a group Sheehan co-founded, said they respected the opportunity given to a «selected group of military families» to speak with Bush, but asked why he would not meet with them.