President Bush yesterday said it is more important to win in Iraq than to withdraw, and promised that U.S. troops will begin to come home as Iraqis take greater control of their country.
“As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists,” Mr. Bush said at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
The president refused to put a timetable on any drawdown and warned that a precipitous pullout would dishonor the more than 2,000 American troops who have died in Iraq.
“To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief,” Mr. Bush said. “We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission.”
The speech was interrupted by applause two dozen times by thousands of cadets in Navy blue and gold uniforms who packed into Alumni Hall to hear the president.
“Some are calling for a deadline for withdrawal,” Mr. Bush said. “Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a message across the world that America is a weak and an unreliable ally.
“Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies — that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends,” he added. “Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorists’ tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder — and invite new attacks on America.”
The president was responding to a call by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, for a pullout of all U.S. forces to start immediately and end within six months. The proposal was endorsed yesterday by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, although a similar House measure was recently defeated 403-3.
Also opposing the Murtha proposal are Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who jointly delivered the Democratic response to the president’s speech.
“Neither Jack nor I agree with the particular choice he made,” Mr. Kerry said of Mr. Murtha.
Nor does Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, whose opposition to a pullout was praised by the president yesterday.
“Senator Lieberman is right,” Mr. Bush said. “Pulling our troops out before they’ve achieved their purpose is not a plan for victory.”
White House strategists are pleased to see so many Democrats opposing the Murtha proposal because it leaves the Democratic Party split over a pullout, which in recent weeks has emerged as the most hotly debated aspect of the war. By contrast, Republicans remain united against a withdrawal.
Mr. Bush pointed out that U.S. troop levels have recently been increased from 137,000 to 160,000 in preparation for Dec. 15 elections in Iraq. But he hinted that those numbers would soon come back down and gave his most detailed progress report on the training of Iraqi forces to take up the slack.
The president became visibly emotional yesterday when telling the story of Marine Cpl. Jeff Starr, who was killed while fighting terrorists in Ramadi earlier this year. The president read from a letter that was found on the dead Marine’s laptop computer.
“If you’re reading this, then I’ve died in Iraq,” Cpl. Starr wrote. “I don’t regret going. Everybody dies, but few get to do it for something as important as freedom.
“It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq,” he added. “It’s not to me. I’m here helping these people, so they can live the way we live — not to have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators.
“Others have died for my freedom,” he concluded. “Now this is my mark.”
After reciting this passage, Mr. Bush said: “There is only one way to honor the sacrifice of Cpl. Starr and his fallen comrades — and that is to take up their mantle, carry on their fight, and complete their mission.”