FORT BRAGG, N.C. — President Bush offered a rousing defense of the war in Iraq today, telling soldiers at Fort Bragg that early withdrawal would "jeopardize the safety of future generations." Speaking at the annual All-American Week celebration, Bush praised the 82nd Airborne Division as "America's guard of honor" and credited its soldiers for successfully leading a surge of troops in Iraq. "Because of your bravery and your determination, the terrorists and extremists are on the run, and we are on our way to victory," he said.
Bush acknowledged disagreements over U.S. involvement in Iraq but said the war was worth the costs. "The enemy has made it clear that Iraq is the central battleground of the great ideological struggle of our times," he said.
He warned against those who would pull out before the job, as he sees it, is done. Though he called no names, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has advocated an end to the war in Iraq.
Withdrawal without success, Bush said, would empower terrorists, embolden Iraq and signal to the world that the United States is weak.
He defined success as reaching the point where al Qaida has no safe haven and Iraq is able to protect, economically support and govern itself and has become a "strong, capable" ally in the war on terror.
By the end of July, Bush said, the United States' presence in Iraq will be down to the pre-surge levels of 15 brigades. At the completion of the drawdown, he said, the number of combat troops will be down 25 percent from the year before.
But he also said he was committed to send all the troops necessary to achieve victory.
"My message to the commanders is 'You will have all the troops, you will have all the resources you need to win in Iraq.
And he urged Congress to reach consensus on a "responsible" war funding bill that would not tie the hands of commanders.
About 250 paratroopers dressed in camouflage and burgundy berets were lined up on risers behind the lectern; they served as a patriotic backdrop for Bush's speech, which was televised.
Bush spoke at Pike Field before about 15,000 troops and about 650 guests -- including prominent military retirees and wounded troops, along with families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush's remarks on Iraq drew applause and several "Hooahs!" from the crowd.
Ed Wilson, a Vietnam War veteran who watched the ceremony, said he agreed with Bush's stance to not pull out of Iraq.
"I say we should pull out slow and not just drop it," he said.
The nature of the event led people who disagreed with Bush to be circumspect.
"He's at the strategic level, and most of us are at the operational level, so we don't question what it is we are asked to do," said George Hines, an Operation Desert Storm veteran, who drove from Hinesville, Ga., to attend the event.
Bush was scheduled to attend a private memorial service for the 165 members of the 82nd who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their names appear on a monument at the site of the service.