ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – President Bush gave an unflinching defense of his war strategy yesterday, refusing to set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals and asserting that once-shaky Iraqi troops are proving increasingly capable. Democrats dismissed his words as a stay-the-course speech with no real strategy for success.

Jessica Boullion
A protester stands with a sign that reads, “Stay what course?” as one of the presidential helicopters arrives yesterday. (AP photo)

Bush recalled that some Iraqi security forces once ran from battle, and he said their performance “is still uneven in some parts.” But he also said improvements have been made in training and Iraqi units are growing more independent and controlling more territory.

“This will take time and patience,” said Bush, who is under intense political pressure as U.S. military deaths in the war rise beyond 2,100 and his popularity sits at the lowest point of his presidency.

Bush’s speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, the first of at least three he’ll give between now and the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections, did not outline a new strategy for the nearly three-year-old war. Rather, it was intended as a comprehensive answer to mounting criticism and questions. Billed as a major address, it brought together in a single package the administration’s arguments for the war and assertions of progress on military, economic and political tracks.

The address was accompanied by the release of a White House document titled “Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” – a report that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed as “35 pages of rhetoric on old sound bites.” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), called Bush’s speech “lipstick” on a failed Iraqi strategy. “If things on the ground in Iraq are as rosy as the picture the president painted today, then we should be able to begin to bring our troops home in 2006,” he said.

Bush spoke to a friendly audience of midshipmen. They welcomed the president by singing him the Navy fight song. At the end, they chanted in unison, “Fire it up! Fire it up!”

The president said the U.S. military’s role in Iraq will shift from providing security and fighting the enemy nationwide to more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists. “We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate and conduct fewer patrols and convoys,” the president said.

Still, Bush remained steadfastly opposed to imposing a deadline for leaving Iraq.

“Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere – but I believe they’re sincerely wrong,” Bush said. “Pulling our troops out before they’ve achieved their purpose is not a plan for victory.”

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada called on the president to release a strategy that has military, economic and political benchmarks that must be met. “Simply staying the course is no longer an option,” Reid said. “We must change the course.”

Bush was ready for that.

“If by `stay the course’ they mean we will not permit al-Qaida to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban – a safe haven for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on America – they’re right,” Bush said.

“If by `stay the course’ they mean that we’re not learning from our experiences or adjusting our tactics to meet the challenges on the ground, then they’re flat wrong.”

There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Pentagon has not committed to any specific drawdown next year beyond the announced plan to pull back 28,000 troops who were added this fall for extra security during the election.

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