US President George W. Bush said pulling US forces out of Iraq now would be disastrous even though staying there was "straining the psyche of our country."
Bush served notice at a news conference on Monday that he would neither change course nor flinch from debate about the unpopular war as he campaigns for Republicans running in November's congressional elections. He even suggested his Republican partymates emphasize national security and the economy as their top campaign issues.
Many opposition 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."
Asked whether he has considered changing a strategy that is not working, Bush said the question was tactical, not strategic.
"The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society," Bush said. "The tactics? Now, either you say, yes, it's important we stay there and get it done, or we leave."
"We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president," he said.
Now in its fourth year, the war has taken a heavy toll -- more than 2,600 Americans have died and many times 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.
In response, Democrats said it was time for a new direction, and Bush should begin redeploying troops this year.
"Our soldiers in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, force protection of US personnel and training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said.
time for change
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."
Bush 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," he said.
Still, he said he agreed with General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, that if "we leave before the mission is done, the terrorists will follow us here."