| President George W. Bush in Birmingham, Alabama. (AFP)
Birmingham (Alabama), Nov. 3 (Reuters): President George W. Bush, in his first comment since the death of 16 US soldiers in the downing of a helicopter in Iraq, said today the US mission there was “vital” and “America will never run.”
“The enemy in Iraq believes America will run. That”s why they’re willing to kill innocent civilians, relief workers, coalition troops. America will never run,” Bush said in a speech in Alabama.
“The mission in Iraq is vital,” Bush added. He did not directly refer to yesterday’s helicopter downing, the deadliest single incident for the US occupying force since Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1.
Sixteen soldiers were killed when insurgents shot down the giant Chinook helicopter near the flashpoint town of Falluja.
The White House has been reluctant to directly comment on the incident, leaving it up to others such as secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld. Yesterday he called it a “tragic day” for America but said there could be others like it.
At least 250 US soldiers have died from hostile fire since the invasion was launched in March and the growing death toll of Americans in Iraq is a sensitive issue for Bush as he seeks re-election next year.
Public confidence in the Bush Adminstration’s handling of Iraq has waned, polls show, and Democratic presidential candidates have sharpened their criticism of Bush over Iraq.
Asked if he was concerned that Bush is losing support in polls because of Iraq, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters: “I think that America recognises that the President is providing strong leadership and taking decisive action.” Bush said: “We mourn every loss, we honour every name” but vowed America will push on to win the war on terror.
“We will not rest, we will not tire until the danger to America and civilisation is removed,” he said. He has said the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terrorism he declared after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The economy, like Iraq, is expected to be a major theme of Bush’s campaign for re-election in one year.
He was speaking today to about 350 small-business owners and employees at CraneWorks, a family-owned crane rental business with 48 employees.
Bush said his tax cuts were helping to turn the economy around but more work needed to be done to create jobs. “By reducing taxes this administration kept a promise we did the right thing at the right time for the American economy,” he said.
The government said last week that US economic growth soared 7.2 per cent in the July-September period, which could provide a major boost for the president in an election year.
It was the fastest pace since the first quarter of 1984. That year, a rebounding economy helped set the stage for Republican Ronald Reagan’s re-election as President.
Bush’s Democratic critics have particularly attacked him for the growth in unemployment and administration officials say the labour market often lags other areas of the economy as it recovers. Alabama has lost 24,100 jobs in the past year with the greatest jobs losses in the manufacturing sector.