MARTINSBURG, W.Va. – Burdened by sagging polls and an unpopular war, President Bush sought a friendly audience on the Fourth of July to deliver a patriotic, gung-ho speech about supporting U.S. troops and sticking it out in Iraq.
He didn’t have to go far – just a 35-minute helicopter ride from the White House – to find an amiable audience at the Air National Guard in West Virginia.
“Victory in this struggle will require more patience, more courage, and more sacrifice,” Bush told the guardsmen and their families in a half-hour speech in a cavernous aircraft maintenance hangar at the 167th Airlift Wing.
“If we were to quit Iraq before the job is done, the terrorists we are fighting would not declare victory and lay down their arms. They would follow us here.”
That line played well with the crowd.
“Whether we should have gone in or not is another matter, but we need to support our troops,” said Ronald Wayne Taylor, a retired colonel with the 167th. “There’s no question about it we need to stay and finish the job.”
It was Bush’s fourth Independence Day trip to West Virginia, a state he carried in the past two presidential elections. His first was to Ripley, W.Va. in 2002.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the president has struck similar chords in his speeches on the nation’s birthday. Last year in Fort Bragg, N.C., where members of the 82nd Airborne Division greeted him with bellowing chants of “Hooah.” Bush said: “This moment when the terrorists are suffering from the weight of successive blows is not the time to call retreat.”
A small anti-war demonstration was beginning in Charleston as Bush defended his decision in January to send 28,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq to tamp down the violence and encourage the Iraqis to reach political agreements among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The war, in its fifth year, has claimed the lives of more than 3,580 U.S. military men and women. The offensive in Baghdad and areas to the north and south has boosted American casualties, although the number of bombings and shootings has fallen in the city in recent days. “It’s a tough fight, but I wouldn’t have asked those troops to go into harm’s way if the fight was not essential to the security of the United States of America,” Bush said.
In Baghdad, the administration was trumpeting a ceremony in which 588 U.S. troops marked the holiday by re-enlisting Wednesday, and 161 soldiers were made American citizens.
However, difficulties continue in Iraq. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds said Wednesday that they have not been able to agree to a draft bill to regulate the country’s oil industry. The oil bill is a top concern of Iraq’s Sunni minority, which is centered in regions with few reserves and fears that Shiites and Kurds in the south and north will monopolize profits.