- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — President Bush last night warned Americans not to forget the lessons of September 11, declaring that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror and asserting that finishing the military mission there “is vital to the future security of our country.”

“The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September 11, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like [Abu Musab] Zarqawi and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like [Osama] bin Laden. For the sake of our nation’s security, this will not happen on my watch,” he told an audience of 750 troops at Fort Bragg.

The president — delivering a prime-time, televised speech at the home of the 82nd Airborne and Special Operations Forces — acknowledged the “horrifying” TV pictures of death and violence that Americans see each day.

But in his 28-minute speech, he asked and answered a rhetorical question — one that polls show is on the minds of many Americans.

“Amid all the violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is it worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the security of our country,” he said.

Mr. Bush said he thinks that despite polls showing Americans are losing confidence in the war, “the American people do not falter under threat, and we will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins.”

“We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America’s resolve,” he said. “They are trying to shake our will in Iraq — just as they tried to shake our will on September the 11th, 2001. They will fail.”

Mr. Bush again refused to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, but vowed that U.S. forces would “stay in Iraq as long as we are needed — and not a day longer.”

“I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I,” he said.

“Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis — who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done. It would send the wrong message to our troops — who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy — who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out.”

Before his speech, Mr. Bush met privately with families of 33 Fort Bragg personnel killed in Iraq. One widow gave the president a bracelet engraved with the names of her husband and another soldier killed with him. Mr. Bush wore the bracelet during his speech.

The Army installation, along with the adjacent Pope Air Force Base, has 14,700 troops deployed overseas. According to base officials, 89 persons from the bases have been killed fighting terrorism.

During his speech to troops, the president also rejected calls that he increase U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight,” he said. “And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever.”

The audience of troops in dress uniform — who have welcomed the president on previous visits with the official chant of “hoo-ah” — listened respectfully, as they had been asked because of the somber nature of the speech. They applauded only once, when Mr. Bush vowed that the United States “will stay in the fight until the fight is won.”

The president laid out a two-track strategy — political and military — that will take the fledgling democracy through the next six months, when the interim government must complete a constitution and Iraqis must ratify the document and elect a new government.

He announced new steps that the military is taking to prepare Iraqi security forces to take over the anti-insurgency battle — conducting operations with Iraqi units, embedding U.S. transition teams inside Iraqi units and intensive management training inside the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries.

“As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” he said.

But he returned often to the terrorist attacks of September 11 — five times in all — each time connecting the ongoing war in Iraq with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

At one point he said, “This war reached our shores on September 11, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us — and the terrorists we face — murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom.

“Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania,” he said.

Mr. Bush also cast the war in Iraq as the sole method to keep Americans safe.

“There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home,” he said.

The battle is worldwide, Mr. Bush said, noting that terrorists captured in Iraq have come from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and other nations.

But as he did throughout his speech, he sought to convince Americans that the United States must stay the course, despite more than 1,700 troops killed since the war began 23 months ago.

“Some wonder whether Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Among the terrorists, there is no debate,” he said. “Hear the words of Osama Bin Laden: ‘This Third World War … is raging’ in Iraq. ‘The whole world is watching this war.’ ”

Despite the rising death toll in Iraq, Mr. Bush said the insurgents have failed to meet even one goal. The insurgency, he said, failed to stop the transfer of sovereignty, failed to force withdrawal by U.S. allies, failed to incite civil war, failed to prevent free elections and failed to stop the formation of a democratic Iraqi government.

“The lesson of this experience is clear: The terrorists can kill the innocent; but they cannot stop the advance of freedom,” he said.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found that a clear majority is willing to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for an extended time to stabilize the country, with just one in eight favoring an immediate pullout of U.S. forces.

The majority of those polled said the United States should remain in Iraq until civil order is restored, even as most acknowledged that the goal could be several years away.

In addition, a majority — 52 percent — thinks that the war in Iraq is contributing to the long-term security of the United States. But just one in five — 22 percent — agree with Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion this month that the insurgency is in its “last throes.”

Mr. Bush closed his speech assuring the troops that “the American people are behind you.” And he asked Americans across the country to use July Fourth “to make sure that support is felt by every soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsman, and Marine at every outpost across the world.”

He also urged Americans to visit a Department of Defense Web site — www.AmericaSupportsYou.mil — to see what they can do to support U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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