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Bush says US troop levels not bound by politics

Written by: Staff

WHEELING, WVa, Mar 22 (Reuters) President George W Bush vowed today he will not let election-year politics interfere with decisions about US troop levels in Iraq as he sought to rally flagging public support for the war.

In a speech at the ornate Capitol Music Hall, Bush also urged Iraqis to come together and form a unity government and said ultimately Iraqi troops are going to have to defend the country.

''It's the Iraqis fight. Ultimately the Iraqis are going to have to determine their future. They made their decision politically -- they voted. And these troops that we're training, are going to have to stand up and defend their democracy,'' Bush said.

Bush is on a big push to try to bolster support for an increasingly unpopular war. Today was the fifth day in a row that he has spoken in public about the war in marking the third anniversary of the US-led invasion.

A small group of protesters near his speech site demonstrated against him, holding signs such as, ''Remember 2,315 soldiers who died.'' A Newsweek magazine poll conducted last week showed Bush's approval rating fell to 36 percent, down 21 points from a year ago, amid discontent about Iraq. The survey said 65 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with Bush's handling of the war.

While Bush recently has faced some critical questions from the public in recent appearances, this audience seemed largely supportive and gave him a standing ovation. It included many family members of US troops.

''Thank God you're our commander-in-chief,'' said a father with two sons in the military, one in Iraq and one in Hawaii.

The prospect of congressional elections in November has sharpened a debate over the war that ranges from whether the United States should shift strategy to whether it should pull out of Iraq.

Bush said he would remain steady in his drive to foster a democracy in Iraq despite the threat of civil war.

''I'm going to make up my mind based upon the advice of the United States military that's in Iraq,'' said Bush, who spoke with U.S. commanders in Iraq earlier from the White House via videoconference.

''I'll be making up my mind about the troop levels based upon recommendations of those who are on the ground. I'm going to make up my mind based upon achieving a victory, not based upon polls, focus groups or election-year politics,'' he said.

There are currently about 133,000 US troops in Iraq.

Bush said yesterday it was possible some US troops could still remain in Iraq after he has left the presidency in January 2009, leaving the specter of a long-running presence there.

In Wheeling, Bush maintained his overall optimism about the ultimate goal in Iraq while acknowledging tough times lie ahead.

''Look, I'm an optimistic guy. I believe we'll succeed. Let me put it to you this way, if I didn't think we'd succeed I'd pull our troops out,'' he said.

Reuters DH VP0110

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