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Bush vows to keep presence in Iraq

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- President Bush said yesterday that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are vulnerable, and he urged US troops to march on in the fight for freedom so Americans can celebrate Independence Day year-round.

At an outdoor pep rally for troops at Fort Bragg, Bush recalled the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who died last month in a US airstrike that boosted troop morale and offered hope to Americans weary of the war.

``At this moment of vulnerability for the enemy, we will continue to strike their network," Bush told 3,500 US troops and others. ``We will disrupt their operations, and we will bring their leaders to justice."

Since Zarqawi's death, Bush said US-led coalition and Iraqi forces have launched more than 190 raids on targets throughout the country, captured more than 700 enemy operatives, and killed 60 more. Members of Fort Bragg's special operations forces were among the first coalition troops to arrive on the scene of the bombing of Zarqawi's safe house, Bush said.

``They administered compassionate medical care to a man who showed no compassion to his victims," he said.

``When this brutal terrorist took his final breath, one of the last things he saw was the face of an American soldier from Fort Bragg, N.C."

The outlook was less optimistic in Baghdad.

Gunmen in camouflage uniforms kidnapped Iraq's deputy electricity minister, Raed al-Hares, and 11 of his bodyguards in eastern Baghdad.

The kidnapping occurred three days after gunmen seized a Sunni female legislator in east Baghdad; she and seven bodyguards are still missing.

In his speech , Bush said setting a timetable for pulling out troops would undermine a fragile new Iraqi government, undercut the efforts of US troops, and signal to the enemy that if they wait a little longer, American forces would leave Iraq.

``This moment, when the terrorists are suffering from the weight of successive blows, is not the time to call retreat," he said.

Bush thanked the soldiers for their service, and recognized the more than 2,500 members of the US armed forces who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

``On this day when we give thanks for our freedom, we also give thanks to the men and women who make our freedom possible," Bush told the troops in muggy, hot weather.

``You are serving our country at a time when our country needs you. And because of your courage, every day is Independence Day in America."

Before Bush spoke, dozens of members of the 82nd Airborne and Army Special Operations units showed him an array of military equipment.

He met a helicopter pilot who ferried former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from the spider hole where he was captured to an airfield in Baghdad. The pilot, who declined to give his name for security reasons because he is going back to Iraq, told the president about the unusual mission.

``Good job," the president said, standing with the pilot next to a MH-6 like the one used to transport Hussein.

He also chatted with soldiers who have served in Afghanistan, where US-led forces are facing fierce resistance from the Taliban in southern sections of the nation.

``It's heating up, but that's expected," said Captain Jason Walters, 33, from Humboldt, Tenn., who has spent eight months in Afghanistan. He blamed the warmer weather.

``Nobody wants to operate in the cold, not even the bad guys," Walters said. 

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