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Bush: Pulling Out Of Iraq Now Would Be 'A Terrible Mistake'

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — President Bush, celebrating his fourth July Fourth as a wartime leader, said Tuesday U.S. troops will overcome persistent violence in Iraq and a rekindled insurgency in Afghanistan because the enemy is vulnerable.

"On this day when we give thanks for our freedom, we also give thanks to the men and women who make our freedom possible," Bush told an estimated 3,500 U.S. troops at an outdoor speech at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division.

"You've given our citizens a priceless gift -- the opportunity to live in freedom and pursue their dreams and enjoy lives with purpose and dignity," he said. "You've kept America what our founders meant her to be -- a light to the nations, spreading the good news of human freedom to the darkest corners of the earth."

Bush said that since the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's leader in Iraq, coalition and U.S. Iraqi forces have launched more than 190 raids on targets throughout the country, captured more than 700 enemy operatives and killed some 60 more. They have captured caches of weapons, and have received intelligence to help capture insurgents, he added.

"At this moment of vulnerability for the enemy, we will continue to strike their network," he said. "We will disrupt their operations, and we will bring their leaders to justice."

The outlook was less optimistic in Baghdad.

Gunmen in camouflaged uniforms kidnapped Iraq's deputy electricity minister, Raed al-Hares, and 11 of his bodyguards in eastern Baghdad. The kidnapping occurred three days after gunmen seized a Sunni female legislator in east Baghdad; she and seven bodyguards are still missing.

Also on Tuesday, Iraq's justice minister demanded the U.N. Security Council ensure that U.S. troops are punished for allegedly raping and murdering a young Iraqi woman and executing her relatives. The March 12 attack was among the worst in a series of cases of U.S. troops accused of killing and abusing Iraqi civilians.

Bush also paid special recognition to members of the U.S. military services who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

"I will make you this promise, I'm not going to allow the sacrifice of 2,527 troops who have died in Iraq to be in vain by pulling out before the job is done," Bush said to the crowd of uniformed troops, who responded with a chorus of "Hooah."

The president, however, did not discuss troop levels there, reiterating his refusal to set a timetable for U.S. troop. "We're not going to set an artificial timetable," he said.

Bush said that such a strategy would be "a terrible mistake at a moment when the terrorists have suffered a series of significant blows" and that it "would breathe new life to their cause" and send signals that "if they wait a little longer, America will just give up."

Setting a timetable, he also said, would undermine the fledging Iraqi government and "undermine the morale of our troops by sending a message that the mission for which you risked your lives was not worth completing."

Tense conditions also exist currently in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led troops are facing fierce resistance from the Taliban in southern sections of the nation.

On Tuesday in Afghanistan, a group of Afghan laborers were killed on their way to a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan, and at least 10 people were wounded when two bombs rocked Kabul. The attacks, including one that went off in a busy traffic intersection near the presidential palace, came amid an upsurge of violence by Taliban-led rebels, particularly in the lawless south and east of the country.

Bush Visits With Troops

Before speaking at the base's Independence Day celebration, Bush was shown an array of military equipment, including a loudspeaker used by a psychological warfare operations unit, by members of the 82nd Airborne and Army special operations units.

He shook their hands, squeezed their shoulders and patted them on the back. "Good job," he told a helicopter pilot who flew former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from the hole where he was captured to an airfield in Baghdad. The pilot, whose name was not provided for security reasons because he is being redeployed to Iraq, briefed the president on his unusual mission.

Later, in a cafeteria at the base, Bush had lunch -- a salad, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese -- with members of the 82nd's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, including 29-year-old Staff Sgt. Daniel Metzdorf, who lost most of his right leg to a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad.

"Every time he comes somewhere, he always thanks us for doing a great job," Metzdorf said. "I don't ever think I've heard anyone telling him thanks for his part in the global war on terrorism."\

While Bush was finishing his lunch, U.S. troops carried over a birthday cake decorated as a flag and began singing "Happy Birthday!" He blew out the candles on the cake, which also had 6-0 written on top, and exclaimed, "Give me a knife and I'll cut it! Anybody want a piece?"

Bush's birthday is Thursday. Asked earlier if he planned to celebrate, Bush replied, "Generally, I celebrate my birthday on the birthday itself." Reminded of a party being planned for him back at the White House later Tuesday, he said, "There may be a surprise party."

Controversy Clouds President's Visit

Jerry Meek, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he worries that the visits are just "a photo opportunity for the president."

"What the troops and their families and the American people need are real answers about when we are going to pull out of Iraq and why things don't appear to be going as they should be," Meek said.

But Metzdorf said soldiers deployed overseas shouldn't have to hear that people back home want them to return. He lost all but six inches of his right leg in an explosion during a patrol south of Baghdad in January 2004 -- an injury that hasn't dampened Metzdorf's enthusiasm for his job as a paratrooper.

"We always get asked how morale is," Metzdorf said. "The only time I have seen morale go down in the 82nd Airborne Division is when we get told we can't deploy. That's the only time soldiers get down."

Three soldiers in Metzdorf's squad were killed and he and two others were wounded. It's important for the American people to hear news reports about military members who are killed so they will "know that a tough battle over there," Metzdorf said.

In Fayetteville, members of the organizations Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War held a vigil outside the Fayetteville Market House in downtown Fayetteville, where they displayed a handwritten memorial that lists the names of each service member killed in Iraq and read out names of soldiers killed since Bush's last visit to Fort Bragg.

"Soldiers know that's a risk when they strap their boots on," Metzdorf said. "If I had died that day, my family wouldn't have been outraged."

Bush planned to watch the Fourth of July national fireworks display Tuesday night from the White House, where he and his family will celebrate his 60th birthday on Thursday.

Among the estimated 150 people who were expected for the Tuesday night fireworks show were Bush friends Brad Freeman, Joe O'Neill, Mike Weiss and Charles Younger, who rode with him to Fort Bragg aboard Air Force One.

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