Bush Stubbornly Defends Iraq Actions As Protests Mount

President Bush said Thursday he sympathizes with war protesters like the mother camped outside his Texas ranch demanding answers for her solider-son’s death, but he said he believes it would be a mistake to bring U.S. troops home now.

Bush said he had “heard the voices of those saying, `Pull out now.'” And he said, “I’ve thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out. I just strongly disagree.”

“Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy,” the president told reporters between meetings with his military and foreign affairs advisers.

Outside his sprawling ranch, California mother Cindy Sheehan sat on the road with a growing group of war protesters who have pitched tents in shallow ditches. Sheehan’s son, Casey, was killed five days after he arrived in Iraq last year at age 24.

Sheehan began her standoff on Saturday, declaring she would stay for the entire month that Bush plans to stay in Texas if he won’t meet with her. Since then, dozens of other activists have traveled from across the country to join her, including at least three other parents who have lost children in the war.

“The president says he feels compassion for me, but the best way to show that compassion is by meeting with me and the other mothers and families who are here,” Sheehan said. “All we’re asking is that he sacrifice an hour out of his five-week vacation to talk to us, before the next mother loses her son in Iraq.”

The protesters put a human face on Americans’ increasing opposition to Bush’s handling of the war. An AP-Ipsos poll early this month showed just 38 percent of respondents approved of his handling of Iraq. More than 1,840 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003

“I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan,” Bush said. “She feels strongly about her position. She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position. And I’ve thought long and hard about her position. I’ve heard her position from others, which is, `Get out of Iraq now.'”

“And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so,” the president said.

The White House put out an accounting of all the meetings that Bush has had with families of the war dead _ 900 relatives of 272 people who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sheehan met the president in June 2004 but said she deserves another visit since there have been so many revelations about faulty pre-war intelligence since then.

Bush said reports that the Pentagon may increase or decrease troop levels in Iraq next year are simply “speculation and rumors.” He noted, though, that the United States had sent more soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan before elections and was considering doing so again before another round of Iraqi elections in December.

Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, has said repeatedly that “fairly substantial” reductions are expected after the election if the political process stays on track, if the insurgency does not expand and if the training of Iraqi security forces proceeds as planned.

Bush said he would make any decision to remove troops based on recommendations by Casey, who gave a briefing by videolink during the president’s ranch meeting with advisers.

“My position has been clear, and therefore, the position of this government is clear,” Bush said. “Obviously, the conditions on the ground depend upon our capacity to bring troops home.”

Bush said Casey reported that Iraqi security units were becoming more capable, although he acknowledged they were not ready to work alone without support from U.S. forces. He described the Iraqis’ progress as improving from “raw recruit” to “plenty capable.”

“I know it’s hard for some Americans to see that progress,” Bush said. “But we are making progress.”

Bush reiterated that the United States sees no reason that an Iraqi committee working to draft a new national constitution cannot finish its work by a Monday deadline.

On another Mideast topic, Bush indicated that the new Iranian president will receive a U.S. visa to attend an annual United Nations gathering next month.

Bush said U.S. investigators still have not yet determined what role Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have played in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Six former hostages have identified Ahmadinejad as one of their captors.

Even so, Bush said, the United States has separate obligations to other countries as the host nation for the United Nations, which is headquartered in New York.

“We have an agreement with the United Nations to allow people to come to meet, and I suspect he will be here to meet at the United Nations,” Bush said.

As host, the United States is obligated under U.N. rules to approve visas to foreign leaders irrespective of political considerations.

Bush said he welcomed the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency’s warning to Iran about the consequences of its nuclear ambitions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of directors expressed “serious concern” Thursday over Iran’s resumption of nuclear activities that could lead to an atomic bomb.

“That’s a positive first step,” Bush said.


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