Iraq war vital to U.S. safety, Bush declares

THE BALTIMORE SUN

President Bush told a nation anxious about the Iraq war that America's sacrifice "is worth it" and "vital to the security of our country," evoking memories of 9/11 last night in an effort to bolster flagging support for his policy.

Bush used a speech televised nationally from Fort Bragg, N.C., delivered before a crowd of uniformed soldiers listening in near-silence, to plead for patience as the U.S. military battles a violent insurgency in Iraq, trains Iraqi troops and helps build a government there.

America is "in a conflict that demands much of us," Bush said, calling the work in Iraq "difficult" and "dangerous" as he declined to provide a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces. "We accept these burdens because we know what is at stake."

His strategy is working, Bush said in an address on the one-year anniversary of the handover of sovereignty from U.S. authorities to Iraqis. He confidently predicted victory and a vindication of his approach.

"The rise of freedom in this vital region will eliminate the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder - and make our nation safer," Bush said in a 28-minute speech interrupted only once by applause.

The address was part of a calculated campaign by Bush to supplant images of death and chaos in Iraq with a more inspiring snapshot: about 750 fresh-faced U.S. troops listening attentively as their commander in chief sought to rally support behind their mission. More than 1,740 Americans have died in the war and more than 13,000 have been wounded during the 27-month-old war in Iraq.

Bush also was working to portray the U.S. mission in Iraq in a more positive light - not as one isolated, bloody conflict, but part of a more hopeful pursuit to replace terrorism with democracy in the Middle East and around the globe.

Bush returned to themes he used in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, choosing defiant words and rousing phrases to call for shared sacrifice in the face of a depraved enemy. He sought to tie the insurgency in Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, saying terrorists striving to intimidate Americans were responsible for both.

"They take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras. They are trying to shake our will in Iraq - just as they tried to shake our will on September 11, 2001. They will fail," Bush said.

National polls suggest the benefits of evoking 9/11. While a clear majority are critical of his handling of the war in Iraq, almost as many say Bush is doing a good job on the issue of terrorism, while 41 percent said they disapprove of his approach.

Democrats reacted with outrage to Bush's mentions of Sept. 11, noting that no linkage has been found between Iraq and the attacks on U.S. soil.

Bush ventured onto the "sacred ground" of 9/11, "knowing there was no connection between 9/11 and Iraq when he launched his pre-emptive strike," Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, told NBC.

The president spoke as he battled a drop in his approval ratings. Bush's support is at the lowest level of his presidency, according to a Gallup Poll conducted with CNN and USA Today between June 24 and June 26, with 45 percent saying they approved of the job Bush is doing and 53 saying they disapproved. Only 40 percent of the 1,009 people surveyed said they approved of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq; 58 percent did not.

Bush, criticized in recent weeks for painting what some said was an overly rosy picture of the war, took pains to acknowledge the darker side of the conflict. Before his speech, he met with families of 33 soldiers killed in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking nearly three hours to comfort more than 90 grieving relatives in the chaplain's house at Fort Bragg.

He said he knew the mounting death toll and "horrifying" pictures were raising doubts at home.

"Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country," Bush said. Senior Democrats worked to strike a delicate balance of criticizing Bush for a speech they said failed to offer a new strategy for Iraq, while avoiding seeming to undercut U.S. troops engaged in a perilous fight.

Bush's policy "is adrift, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in need of major mid-course corrections," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said. "'Staying the course,' as the president advocates, is neither sustainable nor likely to lead to the success we all seek."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said Bush should have presented "a new plan for bringing our troops home, and taking care of them when they do." She renewed her calls, echoed by other Democrats, for Bush to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Bush offered no significant new information about extricating U.S. troops from Iraq, defying calls to provide a deadline and making his now-familiar argument that doing so would only embolden insurgents and demoralize Iraqi leaders struggling to build a political system and viable security forces.

"As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said, later adding, "We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed -and not a day longer."

He ignored calls from lawmakers, including some Republicans, to outline specific benchmarks that must be reached before U.S. military commanders would begin drawing down troop levels. Bush spent the bulk of his speech outlining the progress Iraqis have made, with U.S. help, in establishing a democratic government after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the efforts of U.S. troops to train Iraqi troops so they are "fully capable and independent."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, called the speech "a public-relations pep rally," saying Bush instead should give "a full and frank re-evaluation of this war."

Bush took full advantage of his forum - standing on a stage with a backdrop of his advisers' design, taped from camera angles of their choosing, before a supportive audience - to speak directly to Americans about his vision of the progress on the ground in Iraq. The atmosphere was somber throughout Bush's speech, which was interrupted just once by brief, polite applause from the normally raucous troops.

The president appeared momentarily overcome with emotion as he spoke his closing lines, declaring "brutal" enemies of the nation "no match for the United States."

Underscoring the political stakes in rebuilding support for the war and the president, the Republican Party distributed news releases throughout the day calling Democrats "wrong on Iraq" and offering "nothing but pessimism and retreat" in response to Bush's policies.

Party officials pointed to an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted June 23 to June 26 that found 58 percent of Americans supported keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, even if it means more U.S. casualties, while 41 percent backed their withdrawal.

Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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