Bush Defends Iraq Strategy, Resists Call to Leave

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President Bush defends the U.S. mission in Iraq, saying that calls for American troops to leave the country are premature. The president warned that the situation would only worsen without U.S. troops — and that "chaos in Iraq would be very unsettling in the region."

On Iraq, the president has been facing growing criticism of his policies. Pressed at a news conference on whether it's time to change his overall strategy, President Bush said it was too early.

"If you think it's bad now, imagine what Iraq would look like if the United States leaves before this government can defend itself and sustain itself," the president said. "Chaos in Iraq would be very unsettling in the region."

But one reporter noted that the conditions the president mentioned for pulling out of Iraq resemble the country's status before the United States led an invasion of it.

"You know, I've heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of 'we're going to stir up the hornet's nest' theory," the president said. "It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

President Bush was then asked what Iraq had to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Nothing," the president said. He paused before continuing, "Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a… the lesson of Sept. 11 is, take threats before they fully materialize."

President Bush's comments followed a prepared statement in which he urged the rapid deployment of United Nations peacekeepers to help maintain a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

He was also asked about the rebuilding effort that continues nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, President Bush said it will take time — and that the ongoing goal is to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles.

As for debris that is still piled up in New Orleans, he said, "The money is available to help remove that debris. People can get after it, and I would hope they would."

Bush: Iraq War 'Straining the Psyche' of Americans

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WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush on Monday conceded that the war in Iraq, with daily bombings and U.S. casualties now standing at more than 2,600, was "straining the psyche of our country."

"Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Wars are not a time of joy," the president said. "These are challenging times, and difficult times."

At a White House news conference, President Bush conceded that the war had become a major issue in this year's midterm congressional elections. He also called for quick deployment of an international force to help uphold the fragile cease-fire in Lebanon.

"The need is urgent," the president said.

The president opened his news conference — his first full-scale question-and-answer session since July 7 in Chicago — with a statement about humanitarian aid and an international peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon after 34 days of fighting.

"The international community must now designate the leadership of this new international force, give it robust rules of engagement and deploy it as quickly as possible to secure the peace," the president said.

He said the international force would help keep the militant Hezbollah organization from acting as a "state within a state."

"The United States will do our part," Bush said. While the U.S. does not plan to contribute troops, it will provide logistical support, command-and-control assistance and intelligence.

He said it was "the most effective contribution we can make at this time."

Bush also said his administration was pledging an additional $230 million to help the Lebanese rebuild their homes and return to their towns and communities.

Turning to Iraq, Bush said that if the government there fails, it could turn the country into a "safe haven for terrorists and extremists" and give the insurgents revenues from oil sales.

"I hear a lot of talk about civil war. I'm concerned about that, of course, and I've talked to a lot of people about it. And what I've found from my talks are that the Iraqis want a unified country. And that the Iraqi leadership is determined to thwart the efforts of the extremists and the radicals," Bush said.

On Iran, Bush said the United States is getting some inkling of Tehran's response to international calls for it to abandon its nuclear ambitions. A U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month called on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment by Aug. 31 or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

"We are beginning to get some indication, but we'll wait until they have a formal response," Bush said. "Dates are fine, but what really matters is will. And one of the things I will continue to remind our friends and allies is the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran."

Iran said Sunday that it will offer a "multifaceted response" Tuesday to a Western package of incentives aimed at persuading Tehran to rein in its nuclear program, but insisted it won't suspend uranium enrichment altogether.

Bush said there must be "more than one voice speaking clearly to the Iranians."

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday that Tehran will continue to pursue nuclear technology, despite the U.N. Security Council deadline.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has made its own decision and in the nuclear case, God willing, with patience and power, will continue its path," Khamenei was quoted as saying by state television.

Bush also said he was troubled that so many U.S. House and Senate candidates were calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

"There are a lot of good decent people saying 'Get out now. Vote for me, I'll do everything I can to cut off money...' It's a big mistake. It would be wrong, in my judgment, to leave before the mission is completed in Iraq."

More than 3,500 Iraqis were killed last month, the highest monthly civilian toll since the war began.

The war was a major issue in the Aug. 8 defeat of war supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary. He was defeated by newcomer Ned Lamont, who has called for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"I'm going to stay out of Connecticut," Bush said.

When a reporter reminded him that he was born in Connecticut, Bush grinned and said, "Shhhhhh."

Bush also:

- Said he talked Monday morning with Chinese President Hu Jintao about trying to revive six-party negotiations aimed getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

- Bemoaned high gasoline prices, calling them a tax taking money out of Americans' pockets. He said that's all the more reason to diversify away from foreign oil and fossil fuels in general.

-Said the federal government has committed $110 billion to Katrina relief nearly a year after the huge storm hit the Gulf Coast area, and that the money was taking longer to get to those who deserved it in Louisiana than in Mississippi.

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