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Bush thanks families of troops; protesters rally

President Bush, under political pressure to change his Iraq policy, on Saturday thanked the families of troops killed in the war for their sacrifice as peace activists prepared to rally at this town near his Texas ranch.
/ Source: Reuters

President Bush, under political pressure to change his Iraq policy, Saturday thanked the families of troops killed in the war for their sacrifice as peace activists gathered near his Texas home.

Bush, who is spending a six-day Thanksgiving break at "Prairie Chapel" ranch, paid tribute to more than 2,000 members of the U.S. military who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and assured their families Americans would be eternally grateful.

"This week we also extend our gratitude to our military families, who are making great sacrifices to advance freedom's cause," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "They can know that we will honor that sacrifice by completing the noble mission for which their loved ones gave their lives."

His words gave little comfort to protester Cindy Sheehan who lost her son Casey in Iraq last year and who has become an icon of the peace movement after a 26-day vigil outside Bush's ranch in the summer.

Dueling demonstrations
Sheehan, who dedicated a garden memorial to her son in Crawford Friday, vowed that she and her supporters would return to the tiny central Texas town every time Bush visited his ranch.

Momentum for withdrawal was building, she said, "and we're not going away."

"The troops will come home. They'll come home a lot sooner than this administration planned on them coming home. ... This war is going to be over."

Bush supporters, led by Gary Qualls of Temple, Texas, whose 20-year-old Marine son Louis died in the battle for Fallujah, gathered on a corner in Crawford to accuse the protesters of "dishonoring and disrespecting" the fallen.

"The ones that are over here whining and crying, all they're doing is proving they're not winners, they're whiners," Qualls said. "Most of everybody over there has never had anything to do with the military service."

With political pressure building on Bush to change course in Iraq, U.S. officials have tried to reassure Americans that enough progress was being made in training Iraqi forces to possibly permit some U.S. troops to leave.

Planned troop reduction
The Pentagon plans to shrink the American presence -- now at 155,000 --  to about 138,000 after the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections and is considering dropping to about 100,000 around mid-2006 if conditions allow, defense officials said this week.

A variety of scenarios, including the possibility of no cut in troop levels, were under review based on political and security conditions in Iraq and progress in developing U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, they said.

Bush acknowledged the strain on the military and its families, saying: "Many of our servicemen and women have endured long deployments and separations from home. ... Those they leave behind must deal with the burden of raising families while praying for the safe return of their loved ones."

Bush, whose poll numbers have nosedived to the lowest level of his presidency as critics question the war's origins and progress, has consistently said U.S. forces would stand down when Iraqi forces stand up. He argues that setting a date for withdrawal would simply give insurgents a green light.

Demands for a pullout, or at least a timetable for one, came amid furious debate in Congress over the future of Iraq policy. Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, an influential Democrat on military affairs who voted for the Iraq war, has called for U.S. forces to be withdrawn within six months.