SALT LAKE CITY — President George W. Bush defended the war in Iraq on Monday in the face of growing skepticism, asserting that "a policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety" from terrorism.
With U.S. casualties rising and his approval rating falling, Bush urged Americans to stand united in the war in Iraq and against terrorists everywhere.
While the United States has not been attacked since Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said, "We're not yet safe. Terrorists in foreign lands still hope to attack our country. We must confront threats before they fully materialize."
"The only way to defend to our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live," Bush said in a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Bush spoke as negotiators in Iraq struggled against a midnight deadline to complete a draft constitution to present to parliament.
He said it was a difficult process that required debate and compromise. He expressed confidence that negotiators will produce a constitution "that relects the values and traditions of the Iraqi people."
‘Americans understand,’ Bush says
He said that America's own history demonstrates that writing a constitution is a task complicated by political rivalries and regional disagreements. "So Americans understand the challenge facing the framers of Iraq's new constitution," he said.
"We admire their thoughtful deliberations. We salute their determination to lay the foundation for lasting democracies amid the ruins of a brutal dictatorship."
The president also praised Irael for taking the "courageous and painful step" of removing Israeli settlements in the Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. He said the move reflected the "bold leadership" of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"We're helping the Palestinians to prepare for self-government," he said, adding that the U.S. is giving $50 million in direct assistance to Palestine.
Bush had not left his ranch since Aug. 13. Meanwhile, anti-war protesters camped nearby took the limelight, complete with a Sunday evening concert by folk singer Joan Baez.
Kerry weighs in
Bush’s former presidential rival, Sen. John Kerry, said Monday prior to the President's speech the veterans at the VFW and elsewhere deserve straight answers about the situation in Iraq.
“When will he deliver to the nation and those sacrificing so much in Iraq a concrete plan for peace and victory?” the Massachusetts Democrat and Vietnam veteran asked in a statement.
Also, a leading Republican senator and prospective presidential candidate — Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel — said before Bush's speech the war in Iraq has destabilized the Middle East and is looking more like the Vietnam conflict in which he fought a generation ago.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush said that as with past conflicts, the war on terror requires great sacrifice. He offered his condolences for the families of fallen soldiers.
He didn’t mention Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother who started the protest vigil outside his ranch.
In an ad airing in Salt Lake City to coincide with Bush’s visit, Sheehan pleaded for a meeting with him and accused him of lying to the American people about Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction and its connection to al-Qaida terrorists.
One station, ABC affiliate KTVX, refused to run the ad, saying it could be offensive to the community.
An anti-war rally was planned near the convention site, but some VFW delegates said they considered it disrespectful to veterans.
Bush has strong support in Utah, where he received nearly 70 percent of the vote last fall. But nationwide polls find the public growing more skeptical about his handling of the war.
‘We're not winning,’ senator says
Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts and other military honors for his service in Vietnam, said Sunday the United States needs to develop a strategy to leave Iraq. He told ABC’s “This Week” that “stay the course” is not a policy.
“By any standard, when you analyze 2½ years in Iraq ... we’re not winning,” he said earlier Monday.
Other Republican senators appearing on Sunday news shows advocated remaining in Iraq until the mission set by Bush is completed, but they also noted that the public is becoming more and more concerned and needs to be reassured.
The Army’s top general, Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker, told the Associated Press on Saturday that his service is planning for the possibility of keeping the current number of soldiers in Iraq — well over 100,000 — for four more years as part of preparations for a worst-case scenario.
Hagel described the Army contingency plan as “complete folly.”
“I don’t know where he’s going to get these troops,” the senator said. “There won’t be any National Guard left ... no Army Reserve left ... there is no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.