Bush: I sympathize, but we can't pull out
Washington Post | August 11, 2005
CRAWFORD, Texas — As a roadside anti-war vigil initiated by a California woman who lost a son in Iraq continued near his ranch yesterday, President Bush said that he sympathizes with her loss but that agreeing to her demand to immediately withdraw troops "would be a mistake for the security of this country."
Speaking to reporters after meeting with members of his national-security team, Bush said he has heard the voices of Cindy Sheehan and other grieving family members who say the United States should leave Iraq because of the mounting death toll.
"I grieve for every death," Bush said. "It breaks my heart to think about a family weeping over the loss of a loved one. I understand the anguish that some feel about the death that takes place."
Nonetheless, Bush added, withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq before that nation's security forces are able to cope with the ongoing insurgency "would send a terrible signal to the enemy," that the United States is weak and easily intimidated.
While Bush met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss the war and other foreign-policy concerns, a growing clutch of protesters was encamped along the muddy shoulder of the narrow, winding road leading to Bush's 1,600-acre ranch.
"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. "Our sons made the ultimate sacrifice and we want answers. 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."
Sheehan met Bush last year at Fort Lewis two months after her son died, as part of a group of grieving military family members. She has demanded a second meeting to air her grievances about the war in the wake of revelations about faulty pre-war intelligence.
Sheehan, who began her vigil Saturday, has been joined by several dozen protesters from across the country, including some others whose loved ones have been killed in Iraq.
Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia said her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in Baghdad while looking for weapons of mass destruction.
"This war is a disaster," Zappala said. "It is a betrayal of our military. It is a betrayal of our democracy."
The protesters have strung placards along the roadside saying things such as, "Who would Jesus bomb?" and "Who lied? Who died? Who paid? Who profits?" They also drove dozens of small, white wooden crosses into the ground along the road, in honor of those killed in Iraq.
Sheehan's son, Casey Sheehan, 24, a former Eagle Scout and altar boy, was killed in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, within a week of arriving in Iraq.
After his death, Sheehan, 48, co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of people who have lost loved ones in Iraq or who oppose the war.
Although she met Saturday with two top Bush aides, Sheehan has vowed to maintain her vigil — both here and, if necessary, outside the White House — until she is granted another meeting with the president.
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. More than 1,840 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003.
"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. ... 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.
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 more 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.
"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."