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INSIDE POLITICS

Bush: Iraq 'vital' to U.S. security

President vows to stand firm in address from Army post

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President Bush waves at the end of his speech Tuesday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush sought to reclaim a public mandate for his Iraq policy Tuesday, telling the American people the war is "vital" to their security and that insurgents there share "the same murderous ideology" as the 9/11 hijackers.

Bush marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. handover of sovereignty to Iraqis with a nationally televised speech in front of rows of men and women in uniform at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is home to airborne and special operations forces.

The president has flatly rejected calls by a number of Democrats -- and even some Republicans -- to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

"Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message" to Iraqi citizens, U.S. troops and insurgents, Bush said.

He also rejected calls that the United States should send more troops to help put down the insurgency.

"Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight," he said. "Sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are, in fact, working for the day when Iraq can defend itself."

Bush asked for patience with the U.S. strategy, which he described as two-pronged -- with a military component to combat the insurgency and a political effort to build "the institutions of a free society."

"Our strategy can be summed up this way -- as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," he said.

While Vice President Dick Cheney last month told CNN that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes," the president said Tuesday that the United States has "more work to do."

"There will be tough moments that test America's resolve," he said. "We will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins."

Bush called the work in Iraq "difficult and dangerous."

"Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed. Every picture is horrifying, and the suffering is real," he said. "It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country."

Bush laid out his case for why the effort is important to U.S. security and said the insurgents in Iraq are failing.

"The terrorists can kill the innocent, but they cannot stop the advance of freedom," Bush said. "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 al-] Zarqawi."

"We are fighting against men with blind hatred," Bush said. "They wear no uniform. They respect no laws of warfare or morality. They are trying to shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September 11, 2001. They will fail."

Poll: Half of Americans doubt Iraq, 9/11 link

The president faces an American public growing restless with Iraq.

According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, just 40 percent of those responding said they approved of Bush's handling of the war; 58 percent said they disapproved -- up 2 percentage points from May. (Full story)

But Bush got higher ratings on how he is handling terrorism, with 55 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving.

The president made repeated references in his speech to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, calling Iraq "the latest battlefield" in the war on terrorism.

But Monday's poll found that half of Americans do not see the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror that began after September 11, 2001.

Responding to critics who don't believe the Iraq campaign is a central front in the war on terror, Bush quoted bin Laden, the al Qaeda terrorist mastermind who called it the "Third World War."

"The terrorists know that the outcome will leave them emboldened or defeated. So they are waging a campaign of murder and destruction," he said.

"We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand," he said. "We will stay in the fight until the fight is won."

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, however, rejected the president's attempt to link the Iraq war to 9/11.

"I think the American people are a lot smarter than that," he said. "They've figured this out."

David Gergen, a political analyst who has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, said the speech was an attempt to "try to stop the slide" in public support.

"What he's playing for is time, so that there's not enormous pressure put on him to withdraw," Gergen told CNN.

Gergen pointed out that Bush never used the term "insurgent," referring to them instead as "terrorists."

"[September 11] has been all along his trump card," Gergen said. "He played it in the campaign; he's playing it again now."

A third rationale for war in Iraq?

Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged progress in Iraq.

"I just wish he had leveled with [the American people] more," he said. "We cannot afford to lose."

The senator took issue with Bush's statement that his commanders have told him no more troops are needed in Iraq. Biden said during his recent trip to Iraq, the commanders he met indicated otherwise.

"I don't know who's talking to the president," he said.

While Bush said Iraq has "more than 160,000 security forces trained," Biden countered that an overwhelming majority of those "have a long way to go."

"We have do more to reach out and get the rest of the world in on the game," he said.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN's "Larry King Live" that the speech offered a transformation into what he said was a third rationale for the war in Iraq.

"The first, of course, was weapons of mass destruction. The second was democracy, and now, tonight, it's to combat the hotbed of terrorism," he said. "But most Americans are aware that the hotbed of terrorism never existed in Iraq until we got there."

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told "Larry King Live" that he was satisfied Bush made his case.

"I think the president laid out tonight an excellent scenario of what the realities are and what we face. [The American people] needed that. Now we need to show some progress on the ground," he said.

There are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. More than 1,740 U.S. troops have died there since the war began in March 2003 -- 883 of them after last June's handover.

The Iraqi government has made key strides in the year since it regained sovereignty, including historic elections in January. But the fledgling country has seen no let-up in the insurgency.

Iraq's transitional administrative law calls for a new, permanent constitution to be prepared by August 15 and put to the voters in a referendum by October 15.

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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