FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Trying to rally a war-weary nation, President Bush defended the Iraq war Tuesday night by evoking memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Calling the operation in Iraq “difficult and dangerous,” Bush said “the lessons of September 11” require Americans to stand firm against an enemy that ignores the rules of conventional warfare. Although Bush has acknowledged that there’s no known link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks, he implied a connection with repeated references to Sept. 11 and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

The president avoided any hint of a timetable for withdrawal, but he assured Americans in a nationally televised speech that he intends to bring the troops home as soon as Iraqi forces are ready to take over.

“Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” he said. “We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do.”

The president delivered his remarks from Fort Bragg, N.C., in a gymnasium packed with soldiers from the mammoth military installation and airmen from nearby Pope Air Force Base. In a sign of White House concern over declining public support for the war, presidential aides asked the major television networks to carry the speech live.

“We are fighting against men with blind hatred – and armed with lethal weapons – who are capable of any atrocity,” he said. “They take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras. They are trying to shake our will in Iraq – just as they tried to shake our will on September 11, 2001. They will fail.”

The president’s stay-the-course speech offered few new ideas for dealing with an insurgency that’s claimed more than 1,700 American lives. He rejected the idea of a timetable for withdrawal as well as alternative approaches that call for the deployment of more troops.

“Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done,” he said. “Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight.”

Departing from his usual upbeat assessment of the war’s progress, Bush offered a sober report on a conflict that features almost daily attacks with explosive devices and car bombs. The speech was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the transfer of power from the U.S. military to a provisional Iraqi government.

“Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed. Every picture is horrifying – and the suffering is real,” Bush said. “Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the security of our country.”

Bush referred to bin Laden or Sept. 11 six times in his 30-minute speech and quoted bin Laden to buttress his point that Iraq is “a central front in the war on terror.” Bush said bin Laden cast the conflict in Iraq as the “third world war” and declared that “the whole world is watching this war.”

Bush’s trip to Fort Bragg gave him a chance to highlight his role as commander-in-chief and to link his policies to the men and women who have to carry them out on the battlefield.

“I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I,” he said. “We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed – and not a day longer.”

At least 89 soldiers and airmen from Fort Bragg and its sister air base have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fort Bragg, home of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, has about 9,300 troops in Iraq.

Bush urged Americans to show their support for the troops on July 4th by flying flags, sending letters to the troops or helping military families. He announced a new Defense Department Web site – – that offers suggestions for boosting military morale.

Democrats dismissed the speech as more of the same and accused Bush of erroneously linking Iraq to Sept. 11.

“”Staying the course,’ as the president advocates, is neither sustainable nor likely to lead to the success we all seek,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said. “The president’s numerous references to September 11th did not provide a way forward in Iraq; they only served to remind the American people that our most dangerous enemy, namely Osama bin Laden, is still on the loose.”

MoveOn, an anti-war group that claims to have more than 3 million members, began airing a television ad Tuesday night declaring that “it’s time to come home” from Iraq. The ad quotes Bush saying in April that “we’re making really good progress,” then contrasts those remarks with a more recent assessment by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

“The White House is completely disconnected from reality,” Hagel said earlier this month in an interview with U.S. News & World Report.

Bush acknowledged difficulties but confidently predicted victory. He conceded that many of the newly trained Iraqi security forces aren’t ready to take over from American troops.

Polls have found that Americans have become increasingly skeptical about the administration’s rationale for war and claims of progress in Iraq. Bush’s personal standing has fallen along with support for the war, and his approval rating is now well below 50 percent in most polls.

Before his speech, Bush met privately with relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq.

“We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America’s resolve,” he said. “The American people will not falter under threat – and we will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins.”

Bush again evoked Sept. 11 in describing the stakes in Iraq. He said a defeat for U.S. troops there would “yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden.”

The CIA recently expressed concern that since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has become a better training ground for terrorists than Afghanistan was when it served as the home base for bin Laden and al-Qaida. In Afghanistan, Islamic fanatics trained in desert hideouts; in Iraq, they’re getting real-world experience in urban warfare against the U.S. military, CIA analysts concluded.

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