SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The threat posed by a failure to secure Iraq and the benefits of making that country a democracy make U.S. military involvement worth the sacrifice, President Bush told veterans in Salt Lake City on Monday.
Meanwhile, protesters outside the venue where the president spoke demanded the return of U.S. soldiers from Iraq.
In a wide-ranging speech that covered issues from veterans' health care to the Patriot Act to the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, Bush said his administration was taking a three-pronged approach to winning the War on Terror: protecting the homeland, taking the fight to the enemy and advancing freedom.
He said the lesson from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was that America "must confront threats before they fully materialize.
"Vast oceans and friendly neighbors are not enough to protect us. A policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety. The only way to defend our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live," Bush told the audience attending the 106th national convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars (search).
Bush called the war in Iraq the front line in the War on Terror and said terrorists there were trying to create a Taliban-like regime where women would have no rights and opponents to tyranny would be brutally beaten or killed.
"Terrorists are trying to block the rise of democracy in Iraq, because they know a free Iraq will deal a decisive blow to their strategy to achieve absolute power. The Iraqi people lived for three decades under an absolute dictatorship and they will not allow a new set of would-be tyrants to take control of their future," Bush said.
"We will accept nothing less than total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology," the president added.
Bush's speech came as the three major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq fought a midnight (4 p.m. EDT) deadline to hammer out a draft constitution to be submitted to Iraq's National Assembly.
Bush aides said the insurgency will not stop the tough work being completed by the Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
"In spite of violence, the Iraqi people are building a nation that secures freedom for its citizens and builds peace and security in that nation," he said, adding that creating a constitution is a difficult process that requires debate and compromise.
"All of Iraq's main ethic and religious groups are working together on this vital project. All made the courageous choice to join the political process. And together they will produce a constitution that reflects the values and traditions of the Iraqi people," he said.
Bush won 70 percent of the vote in Utah in November, but Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson (search) was one of many protesters seeking to make the president feel unwelcome during his visit.
Anderson addressed protesters outside the convention while many demonstrators carried signs and chanted anti-war slogans. One protester wore a chicken suit with a placard around his neck that said "George: Scared of Cindy?"
The placard was in reference to Cindy Sheehan (search), the mother of a slain American soldier who held vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch from Aug. 6 to Aug. 18, when she had to return to California to care for her ailing mother.
Sheehan has said she wants to meet with Bush again to discuss her opposition to the Iraq war. She and Bush already met in June 2004.
Sheehan's supporters include folk singer Joan Baez (search), who was known for her anti-Vietnam protests. Baez performed a concert for a few hundred demonstrators in Crawford on Sunday night on the property of a Bush neighbor who opposes the war.
Sheehan's supporters said they were going to trail Bush to Salt Lake City. They also bought ad time on local television urging Bush to meet with Sheehan and "stop lying" to the American people about Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction and its connection to Al Qaeda terrorists.
One station, ABC affiliate KTVX, refused to run the ad, saying it could be offensive to the community. Several veterans attending the convention said the protesters were disrespectful of their sacrifices.
Making little, if any, acknowledgement of the protest outside, Bush described how the older generation of veterans gave much for their country and how a new fighting generation also deserves Americans' support.
"The men and women who wear the uniform today are protecting our nation and upholding our way of life," Bush told the veterans. "You have earned the respect of our citizens, and so on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for your service for the cause of freedom and peace."
The administration recently upped the Department of Veterans' Affairs budget after forecasters said they had underestimated the amount of money needed to administer veterans' health care by $1.5 billion.
Bush said his administration had made veteran health care a top priority, with spending increasing $24 billion since he took office. He added that veterans were now able to receive both military retired pay and V.A. disability compensation.
As Bush tried to promote his administration's care and feeding of soldiers, his former presidential rival, Sen. John Kerry (search), said the veterans at the VFW and elsewhere deserved straight answers about the situation in Iraq.
"When will he deliver to the nation and those sacrificing so much in Iraq a concrete plan for peace and victory?" the Massachusetts Democrat and Vietnam veteran asked.
On Sunday, another Vietnam vet, Sen. Chuck Hagel (search), R-Neb., said the war in Iraq, which has claimed 1,864 U.S. service members' lives, was looking more and more like Vietnam.
"The longer we stay in Iraq, the more similarities will occur, because you get bogged down in an area where you are losing your people. You're putting more and more money in. You are engendering more and more ill will toward our country, not just with the Iraqi people but people in the Middle East," he said.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said the preident needs to start talking about disengagement from Iraq.
"We need the president to be clear about the remaining U.S. military mission in Iraq, and we need a target date — I have suggested December 31, 2006 — for completing that mission and bringing U.S. troops home," he said in a statement.
During his speech, Bush repeated his oft-quoted line that as Iraqi forces got up to speed, American troops would stand down, but he made no commitment to a time frame for getting out of Iraq.
"As we hunt down our common enemies, we will continue to train more Iraqi security forces so they can take on more responsibilities in fighting the terrorists," he said. "And when Iraqi forces can defend their freedom by taking on more and more of the fight to the enemy, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned."
Bush's speech in Utah was the first of two this week aimed at reclaiming the initiative on Iraq after a growing focus on opposition to the war. The president headed to Idaho immediately after his speech, where he was relaxing for two days before speaking to a National Guard unit on Wednesday.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.