SALT LAKE CITY—With public approval of his handling of the Iraq war at an all-time low and an anti-war vigil outside his Texas ranch generating national attention, President Bush vowed Monday before a veterans group to stay the course in Iraq and win the war on terrorism.
Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Bush mentioned the 1,864 U.S. military deaths in Iraq and the 223 soldiers who've died in Afghanistan—something he rarely does—and promised to press on in their memory.
"We owe them something," he told the receptive audience. "We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us ... fight and win the war on terror."
Bush said the Iraqis were doing their part by moving toward independence and trying to draft a constitution.
Iraqi negotiators delivered an incomplete draft constitution Monday, after a one-week extension of their deadline. Iraq's legislature adjourned without voting on it, and its speaker indicated that more negotiations will be necessary. The draft constitution didn't resolve questions over how much power will go to the central government versus regional authorities, a vital question in the deeply divided nation.
"The establishment of a democratic constitution will be a landmark event in the history of Iraq, in the history of the Middle East," Bush said. "Producing a constitution is a difficult process that involves debate and compromise. We know this from our own history ... so Americans understand the challenges facing the framers of Iraq's new constitution."
The VFW speech, and another address on terrorism scheduled for Wednesday in Idaho, are the White House's latest effort to stem declining domestic support for the war and reduce calls from the public—and some members of Congress—for a timetable to bring U.S. troops home.
A Newsweek poll this month found that only 34 percent of U.S. adults approved of the president's policy on Iraq, while 61 percent disapproved. A poll last month by the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed that only 27 percent thought Bush has a clear plan for success in Iraq.
The president's Utah stop was supposed to be a visit to friendly territory: He received more than 71 percent of the vote here in 2004. But his three-hour stay was greeted by a determined group of protesters and ads railing against his Iraq policy.
A Group called Gold Star Families for Peace began running 60-second TV ads in Salt Lake City over the weekend calling on Bush to meet with Cindy Sheehan, whose son's death in Iraq prompted her to set up an anti-war vigil outside the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Although Sheehan left the site last week, other mothers of fallen soldiers and activists continue the vigil.
One Salt Lake City station—KTVS, an ABC affiliate—refused to run the ad, describing it in an e-mail as an "inappropriate commercial advertisement for Salt Lake City."
Salt Lake City's Democratic mayor, Rocky Anderson, broke an unwritten rule of presidential visits and urged Utah residents to demonstrate their opposition to the president's policies. The mayor was to join other speakers at an anti-Bush rally in a park about six blocks from the Salt Palace Convention Center, the site of the VFW gathering.
"He's (Bush's) going to places where he figures he can get support and do the rah-rah speech," said Nikko Schoch, a 57-year-old Vietnam War-era Army medic and co-founder of Veterans for Peace. "Unless things turn around dramatically in Iraq, it won't work. At least I hope it won't work."
The president found a receptive crowd at the VFW convention.
VFW officials spoke positively about the war and blamed declining public support on negative news coverage, which they said focused too much on U.S. casualties instead of military success stories such as a new hospital opening or an Iraqi town receiving water or electricity.
John T. Spahr, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War, said he thought the war was "going much better than we hear, unfortunately."
"It doesn't sell newspapers, opening schools and hospitals," said Spahr, a 60-year-old retiree from Georgetown, Texas. "I get e-mails from my friends over there telling me positive things about Iraq. It's not heard over here, and that belittles the effort in Iraq."
Gary Wellesley, a 58-year-old Navy Vietnam-era veteran, said he appreciated Bush's stick-to-itiveness.
"Take a poll here and it would probably be 80-20 percent" in support of the president and the war, Wellesley said. "Right or wrong, let's stick with it. Let's finish the job."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.