Published: Friday, August 12, 2005
By Nedra Pickler
The Associated Press
CRAWFORD, Texas -- They were just a few miles away from each other Thursday, standing under a hot midday sun to express their concern about U.S. troops dying in Iraq. But President Bush and the grieving mother outside his ranch were worlds apart on how best to honor the dead.
Bush said the United States must finish the job of bringing a stable democracy to Iraq. Cindy Sheehan and a growing group of war protesters who have joined her say the soldiers should come home immediately.
Sheehan's son, Casey, was killed five days after he arrived in Iraq last year at age 24. Sheehan began her standoff Saturday, saying she would stay for the entire month that Bush plans to be in Texas unless he meets with her.
Bush, speaking to reporters between meetings with advisers at his ranch, said he sympathizes with her grief and mourns the loss of life. More than 1,840 troops have died in Iraq.
"I also have heard the voices of those saying, 'Pull out now,'" Bush said. "And I've thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out. I just strongly disagree."
"Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy," he said.
While Bush hosted a strategy session with foreign affairs and military advisers at his ranch, protesters who had traveled from across the country pitched tents outside in ditches next to Sheehan. Among them were at least three other parents who had lost children in the war.
"The president says he feels compassion for me, but the best way to show that compassion is by meeting with me and the other mothers and families who are here," Sheehan said. "All we're asking is that he sacrifice an hour out of his five-week vacation to talk to us, before the next mother loses her son in Iraq."
The protesters put a human face on Americans' increasing opposition to Bush's handling of the war. An AP-Ipsos poll early this month showed just 38 percent of respondents approved of his handling of Iraq.
"I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan," Bush said. "She feels strongly about her position. She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position. And I've thought long and hard about her position. I've heard her position from others, which is, 'Get out of Iraq now.'"
"And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so," the president said.
The White House put out an accounting of all the meetings that Bush has had with families of the war dead -- 900 relatives of 272 people who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sheehan met the president in June 2004 but said she deserves another visit since there have been so many revelations about faulty prewar intelligence since then.
Bush said reports that the Pentagon may increase or decrease troop levels in Iraq next year are simply "speculation and rumors." He noted, though, that the United States had sent more soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan before elections and was considering doing so again before another round of Iraqi elections in December.
Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, has said repeatedly that "fairly substantial" reductions are expected after the election if the political process stays on track, if the insurgency does not expand and if the training of Iraqi security forces proceeds as planned.
Bush said he would make any decision to remove troops based on recommendations by Casey, who gave a briefing by videolink during the president's ranch meeting with advisers.
"My position has been clear, and therefore, the position of this government is clear," Bush said. "Obviously, the conditions on the ground depend upon our capacity to bring troops home."
Bush said Casey reported that Iraqi security units were becoming more capable, although he acknowledged they were not ready to work alone without support from U.S. forces. He described the Iraqis' progress as improving from "raw recruit" to "plenty capable."
"I know it's hard for some Americans to see that progress," Bush said. "But we are making progress."
Bush said the United States sees no reason that an Iraqi committee working to draft a new national constitution cannot finish its work by a Monday deadline.
On another Mideast topic, Bush indicated that the new Iranian president will receive a U.S. visa to attend an annual United Nations gathering next month.
Bush said U.S. investigators still have not yet determined what role Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have played in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Six former hostages have identified Ahmadinejad as one of their captors.
Even so, Bush said, the United States has separate obligations to other countries as the host nation for the United Nations, which is headquartered in New York.
"We have an agreement with the United Nations to allow people to come to meet, and I suspect he will be here to meet at the United Nations," Bush said.