SALT LAKE CITY – The United States and its allies in freedom are in a war they didn't ask for, but will continue to wage it and win, President Bush told the American Legion national convention Thursday.
"The war we fight today is more than a military conflict, it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century," Bush said at the start of the latest campaign to defend his war strategy ahead of the fall election and the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The president said years of pursuing stability in the Middle East was proven a mirage after Sept. 11, 2001. Now, only nations that commit themselves to freedom can help themselves and the rest of the world defeat terror.
Speaking to members of the nation's 3 million strong veterans service organization, the president said that regardless of the roots of the groups seeking to promote violence in the world, they are bound by one common bond — to stop the progress of freedom. They will fail, he insisted.
Hijackers, suicide bombers and other terrorists all have the same objective, he said: "To turn back the advance of freedom and impose a dark vision of tyranny across the world."
With their twisted views of Islam, some of these undesirables are "radicalized followers of the Sunni tradition," Bush said. They present themselves in the form of Al Qaeda. Some are "radicalized followers of the Shia tradition," like Hezbollah and their state sponsors, Iran and Syria. Others are homegrown terrorists who seek to dominate and intimidate their neighbors, "fanatics who live quietly in free societies they dream to destroy," he said.
"Enemies of liberty come from different parts of the world. ... Despite their differences, these groups form the outline of a single movement — a worldwide network of radicals who use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology," Bush said.
Many of the images coming from the Mideast and elsewhere show "striking and sometimes unsettling" images of violence, Bush said. "When you see innocent civilians ripped apart by suicide bombings ... the world can seem engulfed in purposeless violence. The truth is there is violence, but those who cause it have a clear purpose."
In bold terms, Bush launched a new and major public relations offensive on Iraq, emphasizing that the consequences of failure are unthinkable and the U.S. must complete its mission there.
In a series of speeches to be delivered over the next several weeks, Bush is arguing that the bloodshed and threats are symptomatic of an ideological struggle between freedom and extremism. Iraq is now the central front in that war, he said.
In three years since Saddam Hussein was ousted, Iraqis have cast ballots in free elections, approved a democratic constitution and elected a constitutional democracy. Over that same period, Iraq has seen a rise of terrorist and insurgent movements to scare the Iraqis away from their path, Bush said.
"At every stop along the way, our enemies have failed to break the courage of the Iraqi people. They have failed to stop the rise of Iraqi democracy," he said.
Over the next few weeks, the president is shifting the focus of his message from progress being made — national elections, troop training and democratic thresholds being reached in Iraq — to putting into context the mayhem seen on TV screens each night.
The pictures in Iraq suggest progress is halting. The daily reports show multiple bombings have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, sectarian battles continue and U.S. troops are caught in the chaos. The result has been faltering support in America for the president's mission and his job performance.
A third of respondents in an August AP-Ipsos poll said they approve of Bush's handling of Iraq or the job he is doing overall. He scores higher for his handling of foreign policy in general and the War on Terror.
The chief of the Army Corps of Engineers told FOX News that much of the good news from Iraq is not getting reported.
"The full story is not told very well. We are achieving a tremendous amount of good in that country ... we're improving virtually every sector of the Iraqi infrastructure," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock.
Strock said $6 billion in infrastructure has been rebuilt, and of the 1,000 people involved in the management of reconstruction, half are Americans and half are Iraqis. The general acknowledged that Baghdad continues to suffer more than the other provinces, but despite the violence and attacks, it is still not a one-step forward, two-steps back process.
It's more a "two steps forward, half step back," Strock said.
In Utah, the president said despite reports in the media, Iraq is not descending into civil war and will not.
"Our commanders and our diplomats on the ground in Iraq believe that it's not the case. They report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace and a normal life in a unified country.
"Iraq's government is working tirelessly to hold the nation together and to heal Iraq's divisions, not to exploit them. The Iraqi people have come a long way. They are not going to let their country fall apart or relapse into tyranny," Bush said.
Aside from Iraq, Bush spoke on Iran, which ignored a Thursday deadline to freeze uranium enrichment or face sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. Iran's president said Thursday Tehran will not be bullied into stopping uranium enrichment, which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists is for peaceful energy development.
The International Atomic Energy Agency referred its conclusions on Iran's unceasing nuclear pursuits to the U.N. Security Council, which is expected to meet on sanctions in mid-September.
Bush said the U.N. had already passed a resolution demanding Iran end its enrichment of uranium, the Islamic Republic's regime responded with defiance and delay.
"The world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran," the president said. "We know the depth of suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought. And we can imagine how much worse it would be if Iran were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
"There must be consequences for Iran's defiance," he said, "and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons."
He added that Iran as proven itself to be a bad actor, not only for its interference in Iraq by supplying components for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, but also for helping spur the crisis in the Mideast, which left Lebanon destabilized, by arming, funding and advising the terror group Hezbollah, that occupies the southern part of Lebanon and instigated a conflict with Israel.
Before the speech, aides said that the president may hint at but not go as far as others in his administration who say those who disagree with the Iraq war policy resemble the European nations that favored appeasement with the Nazis over a challenge to their aggression before World War II.
In his remarks, the president did invoke that war of 60-plus years ago.
"As veterans, you have seen this kind of enemy before. They are successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be. This war will be difficult, this war will be long, and this war will end in the defeat of the terrorists and totalitarians and a victory for the cause of freedom and liberty," he said
National security is the dominant issue in the campaigns leading up to November's election, but the series of speeches is not being delivered to help his team return to Capitol Hill, the president said Wednesday when asked if they could influence the November midterm election.
"They're not political speeches," Bush said. "They're speeches about the future of this country, and they're speeches to make it clear that if we retreat before the job is done, this nation would become even more in jeopardy. These are important times, and I seriously hope people wouldn't politicize these issues that I'm going to talk about."
Bush won widespread applause from the crowds that greeted him at the airport in Salt Lake City Wednesday night, though his arrival was preceded by a day of protests throughout the city. Tickets to the airport arrival — where the president was greeted with a rally of sorts complete with flood lights and signs that read "Utah Loves President Bush" — were distributed by the governor's office and members of Utah's congressional delegation.
But it was Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson who led the anti-war demonstrations. Anderson, a Democrat, marched with thousands of protesters, through the city. He called Bush a "dishonest, warmongering, human rights-violating president."
For his actions, Anderson was shut out of the American Legion convention, which usually extends an invitation to the host city's mayor to deliver the welcoming address. More than 12,000 veterans were attending this year's convention held by the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization that was chartered by Congress in 1919 following World War I. No anti-war speakers or nationally-known Democrats were scheduled to speak at the annual gathering.
Those who did address the convention included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. All their speeches shared the same tone, warning against abandonment from Iraq.
Bush also thanked the group for the individual service to this country.
"For almost 90 years, Legionnaires have stood proud for God and country, from big cities to small towns, the American Legion name brings to mind the best of our nation — decency generosity and character," Bush said. "I thank you for a lifetime of service. I thank you for the positive contributions you make to our nation."
Winning enthusiastic applause, the president appealed to the group by noting that the Veterans Affairs Department's budget has increased 75 percent since his administration began. He has signed legislation to stop protests outside military funerals and he will continue to pursue a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.
The president's address begins the third series of major speeches this year in which he has reiterated the urgency of staying in Iraq until the job is done. Bush is expected to continue the speeches, which are more broadly focused on the War on Terror overall, rather than just its main front in Iraq. The speeches will continue until Sept. 19, when the president addresses the U.N. General Assembly, said spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Before his speech, Bush met with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He also planned to speak at a luncheon fundraiser for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
FOX News' Greg Kelly and Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.