As anti-war protesters began flooding into town for weekend demonstrations, President Bush on Thursday emphatically rejected any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and contrasted his resolve with the responses of previous presidents.
Displaying detailed knowledge of the war’s status in different Iraqi regions, Bush portrayed U.S. and Iraqi forces as slowly but steadily pushing insurgents into smaller swaths of the country, saying they are active in four of its 18 provinces.
Bush spoke at the Pentagon after he was briefed on Iraq and his administration’s broader anti-terror campaign by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top generals. The president later discussed Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a White House meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan.
“Listen, there are differences of opinion about the way forward,” Bush told reporters at the Pentagon. “I understand that. Some Americans want us to withdraw our troops so that we can escape the violence. I recognize their good intentions, but their position is wrong. Withdrawing our troops would make the world more dangerous and make America less safe.”
No longer dismissing Iraqi insurgents as isolated “thugs” and “dead-enders,” Bush appeared at times to express grudging respect for their prowess, saying they have a clear strategy and have scored some short-term victories. But the president was no less certain than in the past of the ultimate outcome of the military campaign he launched in March 2003 by sending U.S. troops into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
“The battle lines are drawn, and there is no middle ground,” Bush said. “The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon the mission. For the security of the American people, that’s not going to happen on my watch. We’ll do our duty. We’ll defeat our enemies in Iraq and other fronts in the war on terror. We’ll lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren.”
Bush faces rising public dissatisfaction with his Iraq policy and emerging skittishness on the part of Republican lawmakers who face re-election campaigns next year:
_ Sixty-three percent of Americans want the immediate withdrawal of “some or all” U.S. troops in Iraq, according to a CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll released Monday. That level is 10 percentage points higher than where it was before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast three weeks ago.
_ Two-thirds of Americans believe the government is spending too much money in Iraq, according to a new AP survey. Cutting costs there far outranks other possible means of paying for post-Katrina reconstruction, the Gallup pollsters found.
_ Public approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq stands at 32 percent, its lowest ebb since the war started.
At least 100,000 demonstrators are expected to hold anti-war protests in Washington starting Saturday, with smaller numbers of Bush supporters staging counter-rallies.
Bush, though, gave no sign that the protests would change his mind on Iraq. Once again, he gave no timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, noting that troop levels have increased because of an expected spike in insurgent attacks in advance of scheduled elections next month and in December.
While he said Iraqi soldiers have made great strides and are now patrolling cities previously cleared of insurgents by U.S. forces, Bush acknowledged that they are a long way from defending the country on their own.
Refusing “to repeat the costly mistakes of the past that led to the attacks of September the 11th, 2001,” the president cited a string of attacks over the last quarter-century that he said emboldened the United States’ enemies because they went unanswered.
Four of the attacks that Bush said drew inadequate U.S. response occurred under President Clinton, and he has cited them often before: the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the killing of U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1996; the destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998; and the attack on the USS Cole at a Yemen port in 2000.
In citing other examples of U.S. failure of nerve, Bush also reached farther back in history _ to the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979 under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, and to the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon under Republican President Ronald Reagan.