CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Dec. 7 -- President Bush told Marines on Tuesday that Iraqi insurgents have suffered a "severe blow" but are not defeated, as he sought to boost U.S. troop morale and prepare the public for a violent run-up to next month's election in Iraq.
Speaking at a Marine base in Southern California that has lost 269 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush said Americans should expect "further violence" as the Jan. 30 election approaches, but he predicted victory in the aftermath.
"When Iraqis choose their leaders in free elections, it will destroy the myth that the terrorists are fighting a foreign occupation and make clear that what the terrorists are really fighting is the will of the Iraqi people," Bush told hundreds of Marines gathered on a muddy field.
Bush said the Marines fighting in Iraq are winning a central battle in the broader war on terrorism, one that would "make America more secure and the world a peaceful place." But, before the war is won, the president said the situation could worsen, as insurgents try to discourage voters and disrupt the scheduled Jan. 30 vote.
"The enemies of freedom in Iraq have been wounded, but they're not yet defeated," Bush said.
Throughout the speech, Bush referred to the insurgents, who are largely Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation, as terrorists. Critics charge the U.S. war in Iraq has created a new breeding ground for terrorists, and steered military resources and attention away from hunting down Osama bin Laden and those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of the Nov. 2 election, Democratic criticism of the war has subsided even though the situation on the ground has not changed much.
The president has steadfastly demanded that Iraq's election take place on Jan. 30, despite objections from some Iraqi leaders, and the Pentagon recently announced that U.S. forces would grow to 150,000 to safeguard the voting process and stabilize the country. To expand the force, Bush extended the stay of thousands of soldiers who had planned to be home for the holidays. Some soldiers are suing to prevent the Army from forcing them to serve longer than their enlistment contracts require.
Camp Pendleton is one of the most active U.S. bases: More than 21,000 soldiers from its 1st Marine Expeditionary Force alone are serving in Iraq.
Camp Pendleton Marines have hunted the Taliban and al Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan and targeted insurgents in the recent raid on Fallujah. "You drove Saddam Hussein from his palace to a spider hole," Bush said to laughter. "Now he sits in an Iraqi prison awaiting justice."
After the speech, Bush met for nearly two hours with families of soldiers who had died in Iraq. This weekend, Bush will visit injured soldiers at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, the White House announced.
It is unclear when the United States will begin reducing the number of troops in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this week said the United States could pull out by the end of Bush's second term, in 2009. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, told The Washington Post that the United States could begin shifting more from combat operations to training Iraqi forces next year, which might lead to a reduction of troops. But these are more hopes than plans.
In his speech, Bush said there have been mixed results in training Iraqis. "Some Iraqi units have performed better than others," he said. Still, the United States is creating a core of well-trained senior Iraqi officers and hopes the numbers will grow large enough "so the Iraqi people can eventually take responsibility for their own security," Bush said.