President Bush said today that despite persistent insurgent violence in Iraq, the United States is achieving its "strategic objectives" there, and he suggested that terrorists are "less capable" of carrying out attacks on America and other nations.
In a speech to members of the Idaho National Guard, Bush lauded the National Guard and Reserves in general and Idaho's guardsmen in particular as he delivered a tough defense of the U.S. war effort in Iraq, where he said international terrorists have "converged."
His remarks appeared aimed at countering growing public skepticism about Washington's ability to achieve its goals in Iraq and at signs of eroding public support for the war. But Bush framed the argument only as a choice between completing the mission and an immediate U.S. withdrawal.
"We will stay on the offense," Bush said in Nampa, Idaho. "We'll complete our work in Afghanistan and Iraq. 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 vowed, "So long as I'm the president, we will stay, we will fight, and we will win the war on terror."
Bush's speech, delivered during a break from his nearly five-week vacation, was his second this week about Iraq and the war on terrorism. On Monday, he addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City, Utah, and his remarks today included some of the same language.
Antiwar protesters, led by the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, have gathered outside Bush's ranch near Crawford, Tex., to draw attention to the mounting casualty toll. But inside the Idaho Center -- the site of Bush's speech today in a state that gave him 68 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election -- the audience was strongly supportive, frequently interrupting him with applause and cheers. Some of the loudest came when he struck a religious note in describing his aim of spreading democracy.
"Understand, freedom is not America's gift to the world," Bush said. "Freedom is an almighty God's gift to each man and woman in the world."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush noted, "more than 243,000 members of the National Guard have been mobilized for various missions in the war on terror." He said more than 1,700 soldiers of the Idaho National Guard are currently serving in Iraq, the highest percentage of mobilized Guard forces of any state.
He singled out one Idaho mother, Tammy Pruett, who he said has experienced the difficulty of seeing a loved one go off to war "six times over." Pruett, who was in the audience, has four sons currently serving in Iraq with the Idaho National Guard, and her husband and another son returned from duty there last year.
Bush quoted Tammy Pruett as having said, "I know that if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country."
Bush said, "America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts."
After the event, Bush was scheduled to meet privately with families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning to his ranch this evening.
The Pruetts served as something of a counterweight to Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar mother whose son was killed in Iraq last year and who has been pushing for a second meeting with Bush to demand answers about the war.
In his speech, Bush portrayed the war in Iraq as necessary to thwart a particularly brutal and dangerous terrorist movement.
"We will not allow the terrorists to establish new places of refuge in failed states from which they can recruit and train and plan new attacks on our citizens," he said.
He cautioned, "In a free society, it is impossible to protect against every possible threat. And so the only way to defend our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live." He suggested that, notwithstanding the violence in Iraq, this policy was keeping America safer.
"When the terrorists spend their days and nights struggling to avoid death or capture, they are less capable of arming and training and plotting new attacks on America and the rest of the civilized world," Bush said, adding, "we will stay on the hunt until the terrorists have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide."
Bush acknowledged that "terrorists have converged on Iraq" and said they have done so "because they fear the march of freedom." He said, "The ranks of these folks are filled with foreign fighters who've come from places like Saudi Arabia and Syria and Iran and Egypt and Sudan and Yemen and Libya. They lack popular support, so they're targeting innocent Iraqis with car bombs and suicide attacks."
When they are defeated in Iraq, Bush said, "the Middle East will have a clear example of freedom and prosperity and hope, and the terrorists will begin to lose their sponsors and lose their recruits and lose the sanctuaries they need to plan new attacks. And so they're fighting these efforts in Iraq with all the brutality they can muster."
Despite the daily violence, Bush said, "we're achieving our strategic objectives in Iraq. The Iraqi people are determined to build a free nation, and we have a plan to help them succeed."