US President George W. Bush on Wednesday taunted the Iraqi groups waging a guerrilla war against US and British troops, saying "bring them on" and vowing that the invading forces would not be forced into an early departure.
The gesture of presidential bravado came amid declining public enthusiasm for military involvement in Iraq as US casualties continue to mount long after Bush declared the war over.
The US has lost 196 soldiers in combat or accidents since going to war, a third of them since the president's victory speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 1.
The troops have recently come under near daily attack from groups loyal to former president Saddam Hussein or simply opposed to the occupation. The tension rose on Wednesday in Falluja, west of Baghdad, where residents accused US forces of bombing a mosque and vowed revenge, despite American denials and claims that the mosque was a bomb-making factory.
"There are some who feel that if they attack us we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about, if that's the case," Bush told journalists at the White House.
"My answer is bring them on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation," he said.
US troops, Bush added, would not "get nervous" and would only leave when they had accomplished their task of establishing "a free country run by the Iraqi people."
Bush also addressed complaints that the administration misled the nation about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's links with al-Qaeda to justify the war. The rumble of discontent is far more muted than in Britain but appears to be gaining momentum.
He said the evidence against Saddam had been good enough for his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to order the bombing of Iraq in December 1998, concluding: "The man was a threat to America. He's not a threat today."
US soldiers in Iraq sought to distance themselves from the blast at the Falluja mosque.
"The explosion was apparently related to a bomb manufacturing class that was being taught inside the mosque," US central command said.
No evidence was presented to support the claim.
The blast, which locals said killed nine people, including the imam, Sheikh Laith Khalil Zawba, demolished a breeze block building adjoining the Al Hassan mosque in a residential neighborhood.
Falluja residents accused US forces in the town of firing a missile at the mosque and threatened to take revenge. The charges were vehemently denied by soldiers of the US 3rd Infantry, which controls the town.
The Americans believe pockets of hardline Baathists and Wahabists are holed up in Falluja and are targeting soldiers and organizing sabotage attacks against key infrastructure sites.
Two rocket-propelled grenades were fired at US military vehicles on Tuesday night. No injuries were reported.
On Wednesday, US soldiers patrolled the streets trying to explain their version of events to skeptical residents.