President George W. Bush, trying to tap into Independence Day patriotism to revive domestic support for an unpopular war, vowed on Tuesday that U.S. troops would not leave Iraq until their mission was complete.
In a Fourth of July speech here, Bush took a veiled swipe at Democrats who have pressed for a timetable for withdrawal more than three years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“Setting an artificial timetable would be a terrible mistake,” Bush told more than 3,000 military personnel in a speech interrupted repeatedly by cheers at the home of the storied 82nd Airborne Division and U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
He reiterated his pledge to base any U.S. troop withdrawals on “the measured advice of our military commanders.”
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who serves as Bush’s top military advisor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier in the day that September could be a “reasonable” time to start transferring more responsibilities to Iraqi government forces.
“I think we need to be careful not to put specific timelines on troop turnover of responsibilities to the Iraqis,” he said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” program. “September is certainly a reasonable date but we need to make sure that conditions on the ground warrant that.”
Bush pledged to the flag-waving crowd, “I’m not going to allow the sacrifice of 2,527 (U.S.) troops who’ve died in Iraq to be in vain by pulling out before the job is done.”
He warned Americans they would face “more tough fighting and more sacrifice.”
Bush, citing the precision-bombing last month that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq. said U.S. and Iraqi forces were on the offensive, having captured more than 700 enemy operatives.
“We will never back down. We will never give in and we will never accept anything less than complete victory,” he said.
Bush soaked his olive green long-sleeve shirt with sweat as he spoke from a sun-baked stage.
After the visit to Fort Bragg, Bush was returning to the White House for Independence Day festivities. He was also to celebrate his coming birthday at a private party with friends and family. He turns 60 on Thursday.
As he lunched with troops, soldiers surprised Bush with a red, white and blue birthday cake and a rendition of Happy Birthday.
© 2006 Reuters