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Bush reiterates resolve on 2-front war

Tells veterans Afghanistan, Iraq are 'a test'

WASHINGTON -- President Bush offered a sweeping defense of his administration's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan during a speech before military veterans in St. Louis yesterday, repeatedly linking the two countries as vital fronts in the war on terrorism and vowing to press ahead despite continued violence that claims the lives of US soldiers almost daily.

Bush was speaking one week after the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed, killing 24 people and intensifying criticism of the president's handling of the Iraqi occupation. But in his remarks to the American Legion, which is holding its 85th annual convention, Bush said such attacks won't deter the United States from winning the war on terrorism.

"No act of terrorists will weaken our resolve or alter their fate," Bush said. "Our only goal, our only option, is total victory in the war on terror. And this nation will press on to victory."

That victory, Bush said, won't come easily. "The war on terror is a test of our strength," he said. "It is a test of our patience and our will."

In addition to giving Bush a chance to restate his resolve on Iraq, yesterday's speech provided the president with another opportunity to appear before a military audience and served as a reelection reminder to voters of his commander in chief role in the war on terrorism. His tone and posture were firm, and his words were characteristically blunt in describing life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Despite the tough talk, though, the president's standing among America's military veterans is increasingly tenuous, largely because of his administration's belt-tightening on benefits.

"His budget is not enough to take care of veterans' needs," Ronald Conley, national commander of the American Legion, said in an interview. Despite those policy disputes, it was Conley who introduced Bush to the audience.

"We have a disagreement," Conley added. "He understands where we're coming from in terms of health care."

Critics note that hundreds of thousands of veterans across the country must endure long waits to see a doctor at a hospital run by the Veterans Administration. Some of those hospitals, like the one in Bedford, Mass., face the prospect of losing hundreds of beds, which would force some veterans to travel greater distances to get health care.

Representative John F. Tierney, a Salem Democrat, who attended a hearing on Monday where the Bedford beds transfer plan was debated, said Bush's comments before audiences of veterans won't keep them from remembering the service and benefit reductions when they go to the polls in November 2004.

"There is this general misperception people have that Republicans are strong on defense and that will carry them all the way with veterans," Tierney said. "But veterans are smarter than that."

Bush told the audience that military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have rescued those citizens from tyranny and abuse, and he made particular note of the improved fate of women, who were treated harshly under Taliban rule.

"The Taliban felt pretty strong when they were whipping women in the streets and executing them in soccer fields," Bush said. "When our coalition moved in, the Taliban ran quickly for the caves. But the caves could not hide these killers from justice."

Bush later described the military operations that ousted the Taliban and ended Hussein's rule. "The terrorists have seen speeding tank convoys and roaring jets and special forces arriving in midnight raids," he said. "And sometimes justice has found them before they could see anything coming at all."

In the months before the war in Iraq, the Bush administration pointed to Hussein's brutality and the threat his regime posed to the United States in the post-Sept. 11 world as the chief reasons for acting immediately. Bush and his aides alleged then that Hussein's government had terrorist ties, but yesterday's speech focused more heavily on Iraq as a potential haven for terrorists.

"That country is now a point of testing in the war on terror," Bush said.

Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, more vocal since the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, have said more troops are needed to stabilize Iraq and provide better security.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has rejected calls for more US troops, but Bush reiterated yesterday that he welcomes the help of other countries.

"No nation can be neutral in the struggle between civilization and chaos," Bush said. "Every nation that stands on the side of freedom and the value of human life must condemn terrorism and act against the few who would destroy the hopes of the many."

Wayne Washington can be reached at wwashington@globe.com.

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