US President George W. Bush on Thursday predicted an apocalyptic future if the US hastily quits Iraq, and warned Iran would pay a price for not freezing sensitive nuclear work.
In the first of a series of speeches defending his handling of the war on terrorism and the unpopular conflict in Iraq, Bush said that Iran must face "consequences" for snubbing a UN-imposed deadline to halt uranium enrichment.
"The Iranian regime is pursuing nuclear weapons in open defiance of its international obligation," Bush told the American Legion veterans group. "It is time for Iran to make a choice."
"We've made our choice. We will continue to work closely with our allies to find a diplomatic solution, but there must be consequences for Iran's defiance, and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon," he said.
With many of Bush's Republicans worried that the unpopular war in Iraq may cost them control of the US Congress in November elections, the president rejected calls for a US withdrawal as an "absolutely disastrous" betrayal of the Iraqi people that would also endanger the US public.
He said Iraq would turn into a "new sanctuary" for terrorists eager to exploit its oil riches and warned: "If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities."
Bush also mocked opposition Democrats who have called the March 2003 invasion of Iraq a "diversion" from the war on al-Qaeda and flatly rejected their calls for setting a timetable for a phased pull-out of US troops.
"The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq. So the United States of America will not leave until victory is achieved," he said.
The president acknowledged the violence in Iraq but indicated progress in improving security.
"Our ambassador reports that thousands of Iraqis were murdered in Baghdad last month, and large numbers of them were victims of sectarian violence," he said.
"This cruelty and carnage has led some to question whether Iraq has descended into civil war," he said.
US commanders and diplomats on the ground in Iraq believe otherwise, he said.
"They report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace and a normal life in a unified country," Bush said.
A security plan for Baghdad is still in its early stages and "the initial results are encouraging," he said.
Conjuring up a nightmare future for the Middle East if the US public heeds his critics, Bush declared that: "For all the debate, American policy in the Middle East comes down to a straightforward choice."
"We can allow the Middle East to continue on its course -- on the course it was headed before September the 11th -- and a generation from now, our children will face a region dominated by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons. Or we can stop that from happening by rallying the world to confront the ideology of hate and give the people of the Middle East a future of hope," Bush said.
Bush's speech was also part of an aggressive public relations push to rally fractured support for the war in Iraq and energize his Republican faithful ahead of the November elections.
The effort, set to culminate with an address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 19, will include speeches by Bush and his most senior aides, including Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as visits from world leaders that the White House believes can help amplify his message.
Bush will play host to leaders of Kuwait, Pakistan and Afghanistan, each visit a high-profile opportunity to hammer home his messages about terrorism and his call to spread democracy in the Muslim world.
The White House has said that Bush would welcome Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah Tuesday, but has refused to confirm that he has invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai or Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf -- whose offices announced the visits earlier this month.
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