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Bush Praises US Troops Before Iraqi Vote

President Bush has told U.S. troops in Iraq that they face a ruthless, cold-blooded enemy in Iraqi insurgents opposed to freedom and democracy, but that U.S. forces will not withdraw until victory is achieved. Mr. Bush spoke to a gathering of soldiers via video teleconference two days before Iraqis are to vote on a proposed constitution for their nation.

President Bush told the soldiers their mission in Iraq is vital for peace and security, and that a free Iraq will be a blow to terrorists and their deadly aims.

"Part of their strategy is to use the killing of innocent people to get the American government to pull you out of there, before the mission is complete," said Mr. Bush. "I am going to assure you of this: that so long as I am the president, we are never going to back down. We are never going to give in. We will never accept anything less than total victory. It is important for you to know that. It is important for the enemy to know that, as well."

The officers were gathered in Tikrit, hometown to Saddam Hussien and, at times, a focal point of Sunni opposition to coalition efforts in the country, a fact that was not lost on the president. Mr. Bush said, as their commander-in-chief, he is proud of the work the troops are performing, particularly in helping to secure Iraq before Saturday's landmark constitutional vote, the run-up to which has seen an increase in insurgent-led violence.

Mr. Bush then posed a series of questions, each of which was answered by a different officer. All who spoke sounded upbeat and optimistic, particularly regarding Iraqi preparations for the vote, and progress made in training Iraqi security forces.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries with the president, Master Sergeant Corine Lombardo has this to say.

"I can tell you that, over the past 10 months, we have seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidence of our Iraqi security force partners," she said. "We have been working side-by-side, training and equipping 18 Iraqi army battalions. Since we began our partnership, they have improved greatly, and they continue to develop and grow into sustainable forces."

She added that, over the next month, she expects to see one-third of Iraqi forces conducting security operations, without coalition assistance.

Before the event, the officers were seen and heard rehearsing their statements to President Bush. A Defense Department official told them the nature of the president's questions in advance, and asked which of the soldiers wanted to answer.

Asked about what appeared to be a choreographed event, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the exchange was coordinated with the Defense Department to overcome technical issues associated with the satellite feed. But he dismissed suggestions that the troops were coached in their answers, saying their responses were their own.