Bush: Leaving Iraq would send 'terrible signal'
Bush said pulling out of Iraq would give insurgents the impression that "the United States is weak."
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CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- President Bush said Thursday he would not bring American troops home from Iraq prematurely despite a mounting toll from insurgent attacks, telling reporters doing so would send "a terrible signal to the enemy."
"Withdrawing before the mission is complete would send a signal to those who wonder about the United States' commitment to spreading freedom," Bush said at his Texas ranch.
His remarks come after two weeks of sharply higher losses for American forces in Iraq. More than 40 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq just since the beginning of August. Recent polls show support for the two-year-old conflict has slipped, along with public approval of Bush's handling of the war.
U.S. commanders have raised the prospect of significant U.S. troop withdrawals next year if Iraq's government can establish itself and enough Iraqi troops are trained and equipped to replace American units. Bush said he was pleased with progress toward that goal.
"There's not many that can stand alone yet, but there are a lot more that have gone from the raw recruit stage to plenty capable," he said. "In some cases, some units need no United States or coalition-force help. In some cases, they need minimal help."
Bush warned that an early withdrawal of American forces would give insurgent leaders like wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the impression that "the United States is weak."
Before the invasion, Bush and other administration officials said military action was needed to strip of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, which it accused Baghdad of harboring in violation of U.N. resolutions.
Iraq was later determined to have abandoned its non-conventional weapons programs in the 1990s, though it had concealed some weapons-related research from U.N. inspectors. Bush now says establishing a stable, democratic Iraq will foster reforms in other Middle Eastern countries that will undercut support for terrorism.
"Our mission in Iraq, as I said earlier, is to fight the terrorists, is to train the Iraqis," he said. "And we're making progress training the Iraqis. I know it's hard for some Americans to see that progress. But we are making progress."
More than 1,800 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Most have been killed battling a persistent insurgency against American forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government that followed the collapse of Saddam's regime.
Bush expressed sympathy for those who have lost relatives in the conflict. "I grieve for every death," he said.
"It breaks my heart to think about a family weeping over the loss of a loved one," he said. "I understand the anguish that some feel about the death that takes place. I also have heard the voices of those saying, 'Pull out now,' and I've thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out -- I just strongly disagree."
The mother of an Army specialist killed in Iraq in 2004 has been camped outside Bush's ranch while the president is on vacation, vowing to remain until she can speak to him.
Cindy Sheehan says she met with Bush shortly after her son's death, but failed to get satisfactory answers to her concerns.
Bush said Sheehan "has every right in the world to say what she believes" and that he has "thought long and hard about her position."
But he said it would be "a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run" if the United States withdrew forces from Iraq prematurely.
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