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Bush: War 'Straining' American Psyche

President Bush said Monday the Iraq war is "straining the psyche of our country" but leaving now would be a disaster.

Mr. Bush served notice at a news conference that he would not change course or flinch from debate about the unpopular war as he campaigns for Republicans in the November congressional elections. In fact, he suggested that national security and the economy should be the top political issues, and criticized the Democrats' approach on both.

Many Democrats want to leave Iraq "before the job is done," the president said. "I can't tell you exactly when it's going to be done," he said, but "if we ever give up the desire to help people who live in freedom, we will have lost our soul as a nation, as far as I'm concerned."

Also, Mr. Bush likened Hezbollah and the violence in Lebanon to that in Iraq — both, in his view, the work of terrorists — and called for quick deployment of an international force to stabilize Lebanon, CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante reports.

"The reality is in order for Lebanon to succeed — and we want Lebanon's democracy to succeed — the Lebanese government's eventually going to have to deal with Hezbollah," Mr. Bush said.

Now in its fourth year, the war has taken a heavy toll — more than 2,600 Americans have died and many more Iraqis have been killed. Last month alone, about 3,500 Iraqis died violently, the highest monthly civilian toll so far. Bush's approval rating has slumped to the lowest point of his presidency, and Republicans are concerned that they could lose control of Congress because of voters' unhappiness.

Mr. Bush said if you think the situation is bad now, it would be chaos if the U.S. left early, CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports. But the president said he was frustrated by the war at times.

"War is not a time of joy," he said. "These are challenging times, and they're difficult times, and they're straining the psyche of our country. I understand that. You know, nobody likes to see innocent people die. Nobody wants to turn on their TV on a daily basis and see havoc wrought by terrorists."

But Mr. Bush said he agreed with Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, that if "we leave before the mission is done, the terrorists will follow us here." A failed Iraq would provide a safe haven for terrorists and extremists and give them revenue from oil sales, President Bush said.

In response, Democrats said it was time for a new direction and Mr. Bush should begin redeploying troops this year.

"Our soldiers in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, force protection of U.S. personnel and training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said, "Far from spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration has watched while extremists grow stronger, Iran goes nuclear, Iraq falls into civil war and oil and gas prices skyrocket. Simply staying the course is unacceptable."

President Bush said differences over Iraq provide "an interesting debate." "There's a lot of people — good, decent people — saying 'withdraw now.' They're absolutely wrong. ... We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president. That would be a huge mistake."

"Leaving before the job is done would be a disaster."

He said he would not question the patriotism of someone who disagreed with him — although Vice President Dick Cheney said recently the Democratic primary election victory of anti-war candidate Ned Lamont over incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, a defender of the war, might encourage "the al Qaeda types."

But Mr. Bush said he would stay out of that particular election, Plante reports.

President Bush opened his nearly hour-long news conference by calling for quick deployment of an international force to help uphold the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. "The need is urgent," Mr. Bush said. He said the United States was increasing humanitarian and reconstruction aid to more than $230 million.

European countries expected to provide the bulk of peacekeepers have delayed committing troops. France disappointed allies by merely doubling its contingent of 200.

The president also said the United States would seek a new U.N. resolution on disarming Hezbollah in southern Lebanon but he sounded doubtful about achieving results soon on the ground. "Hopefully, over time, Hezbollah will disarm," the president said.

Mr. Bush also:

  • Said there must be "more than one voice speaking clearly to the Iranians." Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday that Tehran will continue to pursue nuclear technology, despite the U.N. Security Council deadline.
  • Said he talked Monday morning with Chinese President Hu Jintao about trying to revive six-party negotiations aimed getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
  • Bemoaned high gasoline prices, calling them a tax taking money out of Americans' pockets. He said that's all the more reason to diversify away from foreign oil and fossil fuels in general.
  • Said the federal government has committed $110 billion to Katrina relief nearly a year after the huge storm hit the Gulf Coast area, and that the money was taking longer to get to those who deserved it in Louisiana than in Mississippi.
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