President Bush, rebutting a rising antiwar movement in the country and on Capitol Hill, told National Guard soldiers and their families Wednesday that terrorists "want us to retreat" but vowed that he never will.
Bush spoke frankly for the second time in three days about the casualties the U.S. military is continuing to suffer in Iraq but rejected demands for the troops to come home, calls that have gained widespread attention during the month he has spent at his ranch in Texas.
"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."
White House officials said they viewed the speech, the second of three he plans to give in the two weeks before Labor Day, as a crucial opportunity for Bush to show both compassion and resolve when his conduct of the war is increasingly being publicly questioned, and polls of public support are flirting with Vietnam War-era depths.
During a month when he has been shadowed by war protester Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, the president drew thunderous applause from the camouflage-clad National Guard troops and others in the Idaho Center arena when he saluted "a mom named Tammy Pruett," who has watched six loved ones deploy to Iraq.
Asserting that "the stakes in Iraq could not be higher," Bush contended that the nation is "achieving our strategic objectives in Iraq." It is that last contention -- that the United States is moving purposely toward its goals and an accompanying exit from Iraq -- that has been subject to growing skepticism by Democrats.
Bush's aides said they realize that the death toll in Iraq -- at least 1,867 at the time Bush spoke -- will soon reach 2,000, a milestone that will provide a major platform for his critics. Against this backdrop, the aides said the speech was designed to portray a stark choice between completing the mission in Iraq and showing weakness to terrorists who are prepared to strike in the United States -- suggesting dire consequences at home from a hasty withdrawal abroad.
Sheehan, whose son Casey died in an attack of his Army unit in Iraq last year, returned to Crawford, Tex., late Wednesday -- shortly before Bush returned from Idaho -- and resumed a peace vigil that she broke off last week to care for her ailing mother. Sheehan has served as a galvanizing force for opponents of the war, drawing hundreds of activists to rural Crawford in support of her demand to meet with Bush and call for a complete pullout from Iraq.
"This is where I belong, until August 31st, like I told the president," Sheehan said in Waco, before being driven about 25 miles to Crawford.
While Bush did not mention her by name, he broke with his two-year policy of avoiding specific mention of casualties and gave a figure about the losses for the second speech in a row. "In this war, we have said farewell to some very good men and women, including 491 heroes of the National Guard and reserves," he said. "These brave men and women gave their lives for a cause that is just and necessary for the security of our country, and now we will honor their sacrifice by completing their mission."
By unmistakable implication, he offered Pruett as a counterpoint to Sheehan. She has four sons serving in Iraq with Idaho's National Guard. A fifth son and her husband, Leon Pruett, returned last year from the country.
"There are few things in life more difficult than seeing a loved one go off to war," he said. "Tammy says this -- and I want you to hear this: '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. And I guess you couldn't ask for a better way of life than giving it for something that you believe in.' America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts."
After the speech, the president spent nearly three hours with 19 families, mostly from Idaho, that lost relatives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The families were selected by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), who telephoned them on Sunday night, officials said.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said that as in all similar meetings with the president, "Sometimes they share tears, sometimes they share laughter, sometimes they share both. The president is just there to console them and thank them for their sacrifice."
During his speech, to huge applause, Bush promised to minimize extensions and repeat mobilizations. He said reservists would now get 30 days of notice "in most cases" before mobilizing for duty, greater access to the military medical system before and after reporting for duty, and funds for education.
These pledges come during one of the deadliest months among the National Guard and reserves. The National Guard has been stretched to its limits by battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Idaho National Guard has had eight casualties in Iraq, and the Defense Department estimated that an additional 128 have been injured. Last December, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the Guard, said that his troops were "under-resourced" and "under-equipped."
In his remarks, Bush noted that he is one of 19 presidents who have served in the National Guard -- in Bush's case, as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era. That tenure, and questions over whether Bush met his responsibilities, erupted in Bush's reelection effort last year.
Locals lined up before dawn to get some of the leftover tickets for the speech, and they gave the president more than a dozen standing ovations during his 43-minute speech. Jill Blue, whose brother Marty is serving in the Air Force, said she was reassured by Bush's words. "I'm glad that he's seeing out the job. I liked what he said about honoring the people who have died by not pulling out. It was a good comment."
Allen reported from Washington.