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Bush moves to counter publicity about mother of slain soldier

NAMPA, Idaho—In an effort to counter the publicity about anti-war military mom Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside his Texas ranch, President Bush on Wednesday praised an Idaho woman whose husband and five sons were sent to Iraq, saying she's an example of how military families really feel about the war.

Tammy Pruett screamed when Bush mentioned her and her family to a receptive crowd of more than 5,000 people—most of them Idaho National Guard personnel and their families—at a sports arena here.

Pruett's husband, Leon, and their sons, Eric, Evan, Greg, Jeff and Eren, have all served in Iraq.

"Tammy says this—and I want you to hear this—`I know if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country,'" Bush said. "`And I guess you couldn't ask for a better way of life than giving it for something that you believe in.' America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts."

Bush also repeated his vow to stay the course in Iraq and to win the war on terror. He said U.S. troops will remain in Iraq until trained Iraqi forces are strong enough to defend the country themselves.

With his approval ratings declining as the U.S. military death toll in Iraq mounts, Bush has intensified his efforts to combat Americans' increasingly visible doubts.

To show his concern for U.S. military families, he met privately after his speech with 68 people—involving 19 families—who had lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Protesters demonstrated outside the Idaho Center arena Wednesday. Another group held an anti-war vigil outside the state capitol in Boise. When Bush spoke on Iraq in Salt Lake City on Monday, the city's Democratic mayor urged residents to protest Bush's policies on Iraq and the environment.

Bush's speech Wednesday had the trappings of a campaign event designed to bolster his image as commander-in-chief. A drum corps played the theme of each of the armed forces as the flags of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard passed in review. Bush stood before a group of soldiers in fatigues. They stood ramrod straight in front of a giant red, white and blue backdrop with photos of soldiers, police officers, firefighters and rescue workers and the words "Honoring America's Heroes," creating a visual link between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.

Bush sprinkled his speech with anecdotes about families like the Pruetts and soldiers who told of positive experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. He quoted Matt Salisbury, a specialist in Idaho's Army National Guard who talked glowingly of helping an Iraqi family to the polls during the nation's first democratic election in January.

"`How can I possibly describe the return of hope and dignity that I saw in these people's eyes,'" Bush quoted Salisbury as saying. "It is worth the sacrifice of leaving families, jobs and a safe life.' ... You see, the Iraqi election that Matt witnessed was more than a momentary victory. It was part of a series of defeats for the terrorists."

Bush didn't mention Sheehan in his speech. But while vacationing at an Idaho mountain resort Tuesday, he said that most military families don't share her views.

Sheehan's son Casey, a 24-year-old Army specialist, was killed in Iraq in April 2004. Sheehan has camped outside Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch during most of the president's August vacation, demanding to see him so that she could get answers about the war, which she denounces. She left the vigil last week to tend to her ailing mother but returned late Wednesday.

Bush has declined to see Sheehan, saying he understands her pain but disagrees with her views on the war. Still, her vigil has reaped national attention and is galvanizing other protesters to start more anti-war demonstrations.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.