(AP) - Broadening his defense of the war in Iraq, President Bush said Tuesday that withdrawing U.S. forces would allow the Middle East to be taken over by extremist forces and put the security of the United States in jeopardy.
"I want our fellow citizens to consider what would happen if these forces of radicalism and extremism were allowed to drive us out of the Middle East," Bush said to thousands of veterans at the American Legion convention. "The region would be dramatically transformed in a way that could imperil the civilized world."
Bush got a friendly response from the veterans group in his second major speech in a week seeking to buttress support for the war.
"America will not abandon Iraq in its hour of need," the president said.
Pointing at military progress in Iraq, Bush said, "It will take time for the recent progress we have seen in security to translate into political progress. Leaders in Washington need to look for ways to help our Iraqi allies succeed, not for excuses to abandon them."
Bush described the domino effects of failure in Iraq, and success - portraying the war in Iraq as the quickest way to put the entire Middle East on a path to democracy, economic expansion and stability that expels terrorist elements.
"Either the forces of extremism succeed or the forces of freedom succeed," he said. "Either our enemies advance their interests in Iraq, or we advance our interests. The most important and immediate way to counter the ambitions of al Qaida, Iran and other forces of instability and terror is to win the fight in Iraq."
The president's speech came two weeks before the administration reports to a skeptical Congress on the impact of Bush's buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq.
The assessment by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus will likely determine the fate of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
Eager to show progress to increasingly restive members of Congress from both parties, Bush detailed security gains from the troop increase. He also noted early signs of political progress, particularly at the local and regional level.
"Iraqis are increasingly reaching accommodations with each other," Bush said, adding that many of the political benchmarks are being achieved by Iraqis by going around the difficult and so-far unsuccessful process of passing legislation. He qualified that praise by acknowledging that "our new strategy is showing far fewer results at the national level."
Still, he said that lawmakers should "withhold any conclusions until they can hear these men out," referring to Crocker and Petraeus.
Bush pointedly addressed critics' impatience with progress in Iraq, saying they keep moving the goal posts each time there are gains.
"They disregard the political advances on the local level, and instead charge that the slow pace of legislative progress on the national level proves that our strategy has not worked," the president said. "This argument gets it backward."
He added: "It will take time for the recent progress we have seen in security to translate into political progress."
"It makes no sense to respond to military progress by claiming that we have failed because Iraq's parliament has yet to pass every law it said it would. ... Even we cannot pass a budget on time," Bush said, "and we have had 200 years of practice. ... Leaders in Washington need to look for ways to help our Iraqi allies succeed, not for excuses to abandon them."
Bush, who has routinely described Iraq as the central front in the war on terror, sought to offer a more detailed breakdown of the threat to the U.S.
He said violent Islamic radicalism has two "strains" - Sunni extremism, as embodied by al-Qaida, and Shia extremism, as represented by Iran's government. "We will confront this danger before it's too late," Bush said.
Bush pointedly accused Iran's leadership of trying to destabilize Iraq, calling Tehran a destructive influence that puts American lives at risk.
"Iran is sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan to be used to attack American and NATO troops," Bush said. "Iran has arrested visiting American scholars who have committed no crimes and impose no threat to their regime. And Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)