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Bush Defends Iraq Policy, Rejects Timetable for Withdrawal

President Bush says Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking responsibility for the fight against insurgents. But he stresses he will not set a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal and says American troops will remain until the Iraqis are totally able to defend themselves.

President Bush says the fight for a free Iraq is increasingly in Iraqi hands.

"They are defending their new democracy with courage and determination," the president said. "They are in the fight today. And they will be in the fight for freedom tomorrow."

He says gradually as Iraqis are trained and prove their combat readiness, the American military presence will evolve. He says it will take time and patience, but it will happen.

"As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists," said Mr. Bush.

But the president insists he will not agree to an arbitrary timetable for withdrawals, saying victory in the overall war on terrorism remains paramount. He says political considerations will not drive his decisions, and vows to abide by the recommendations of his commanders in the field.

"Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send the message across the world that America is weak and an unreliable ally," he added. "Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends."

In a speech to a receptive audience at the U.S. Naval Academy near Washington, the president offered a detailed defense of his Iraq policy. At a time of waning public support for the war, and increasing criticism in the United States Congress, he sought to make the case for continued American involvement at a time of mounting U.S. casualties.

Many elements of the speech had been heard before. But there were new details on the training process, designed to counter the notion that it is lagging.

The president acknowledged for the first time that mistakes were made early on, but said the ways in which Iraqi security forces are recruited and trained have adapted over time and are now producing strong results.

"About 80 Iraqi battalions are fighting side-by-side with coalition forces. And about 40 others are taking the lead in the fight. Most of those 40 battalions are controlling their own battle space and conducting their own operations against terrorists with some coalition support, and they are helping to turn the tide in this struggle in freedom's favor," President Bush said.

Earlier, the White House released a 35-page pamphlet titled It lays out, in fairly detailed language, the president's short term and long term goals for Iraq, and the rationale behind the continued U.S. presence.

The strategy document, which was prepared by the president's national security team, stresses that no war was ever won on a timetable. It says force reductions are possible next year, indeed, expected, as the political process moves forward and more Iraqi security forces are trained.

White House officials say the booklet is designed to give the American people a better understanding of the administration's plans and goals for Iraq. And in his speech, the president made the point of saying it is now available for all to read on the White House Web site.