Bush defends Iraq policies, notes debt to fallen troops

He tells VFW convention that U.S. must finish task

August 23, 2005|By Peter Wallsten | Peter Wallsten,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SALT LAKE CITY - With anti-war protests continuing outside his Texas ranch and public approval of his leadership sagging, President Bush broke yesterday from his monthlong summer vacation to defend his Iraq policies against critics who say he should bring U.S. forces home.

Speaking to a friendly audience at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush offered a rare presidential tally of the fallen U.S. soldiers in Iraq - more than 1,800 at the time of his appearance. Bush did not mention Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier who has led the protests near his Texas vacation property. But his reference to the dead troops and their grieving families was an apparent acknowledgment that Sheehan and other parents allied with her have proved formidable foes in the battle for public opinion.

"We owe them something," he said, referring to the fallen troops. "We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists, and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us win and fight - fight and win the war on terror."

The speech came as Iraqi officials worked without success to agree on a new constitution, a potential setback for the Bush administration. With the deadline for an agreement already extended once, Iraqi officials failed yesterday to resolve a number of sensitive issues by a second deadline and instead sought three more days to work.

"Producing a constitution is a difficult process that involves debate and compromise," Bush said. "We know this from our own history."

While Bush's words yesterday did not reflect any changes in U.S. policy or any direct response to critics calling for a timetable for an Iraq pullout, the speech marked a renewed effort by White House officials to stem what some Republican strategists worry is a rising tide of opposition that could hamper GOP candidates in next year's elections. Recent opinion polls put public approval of Bush's Iraq policies in the mid-30s percentile, and several surveys show that Bush's overall approval rating has dipped below 50 percent.

A Newsweek survey this month, for example, showed that 54 percent of respondents disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq, while 26 percent said they supported keeping large numbers of American troops in Iraq until U.S. goals are achieved.

One Republican considering a run for president in 2008, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam veteran, criticized Bush last week and again over the weekend for failing to meet with Sheehan, who is expected to return to her Crawford protest this week after tending to her ailing mother in Los Angeles. Sheehan and other protesters, who first arrived in Crawford on Aug. 6, have gained attention at a time when Bush has been on vacation and largely out of view.

Sheehan's son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq last year at age 24. Sheehan and other members of military families were part of a small group that met briefly with Bush last year, but Sheehan has said her opposition to the war has intensified and that she wants a second meeting with Bush.

Some protesters rallied yesterday in Salt Lake City, led by Celeste Zappala, whose 30-year- old son, Sherwood Baker, a member of a Pennsylvania National Guard unit, was killed in 2004. Zappala, a member of the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out, said she spent a week with Sheehan at the Crawford protest and had no plans of letting up.

"I don't know that the president would ever talk to us, since he doesn't necessarily talk to people who disagree with him," Zappala said. "But I'm a religious person, and I feel like I'm giving witness to the loss of my son for the 1,863 others, and for all the people who are injured and who will die today in Iraq. Somehow this policy is not working."

In his remarks to the VFW, Bush sought to portray the war in Iraq as one piece of his broader vision to transform the Middle East. He linked the fight against terrorists to the grand struggles of the 20th century against Nazism and communism, and pointed out that those struggles also resulted in painful casualties.

Bush suggested that pulling out of Iraq would make the United States more vulnerable.

"A policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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