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Bush Defends Iraq Strategy, Resists Call to Leave

President Bush defends the U.S. mission in Iraq, saying that calls for American troops to leave the country are premature. The president warned that the situation would only worsen without U.S. troops -- and that "chaos in Iraq would be very unsettling in the region."

On Iraq, the president has been facing growing criticism of his policies. Pressed at a news conference on whether it's time to change his overall strategy, President Bush said it was too early.

"If you think it's bad now, imagine what Iraq would look like if the United States leaves before this government can defend itself and sustain itself," the president said. "Chaos in Iraq would be very unsettling in the region."

But one reporter noted that the conditions the president mentioned for pulling out of Iraq resemble the country's status before the United States led an invasion of it.

"You know, I've heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of 'we're going to stir up the hornet's nest' theory," the president said. "It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

President Bush was then asked what Iraq had to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Nothing," the president said. He paused before continuing, "Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a… the lesson of Sept. 11 is, take threats before they fully materialize."

President Bush's comments followed a prepared statement in which he urged the rapid deployment of United Nations peacekeepers to help maintain a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

He was also asked about the rebuilding effort that continues nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, President Bush said it will take time -- and that the ongoing goal is to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles.

As for debris that is still piled up in New Orleans, he said, "The money is available to help remove that debris. People can get after it, and I would hope they would."

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.