CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush said Thursday that no decision has been made on increasing or decreasing troop strength in Iraq ahead of Iraqi elections in October, but it would be a mistake to bail out on the Iraqis before the nation is secure.
Speaking from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he and some of his top advisers were meeting in what has become an annual ritual to consider foreign policy issues, Bush said he grieves for every death of an American soldier, but that pulling out of Iraq would send the wrong message to the enemy that the United States is weak.
"You know, I grieve for every death. It breaks my heart to think about a family weeping over the loss of a loved one. I understand the anguish that some feel about the death that takes place. I also have heard the voices of those saying: 'Pull out now.' And I've thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out. I just strongly disagree," he said.
"Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy," he added. "Pulling troops out prematurely will betray the Iraqis. Our mission in Iraq, as I said earlier, is to fight the terrorists, is to train the Iraqis. And we're making progress training the Iraqis."
Bush said that some Americans find it hard to notice the progress in Iraq because of the continued killing of U.S. and coalition troops. But a strategy is in place to equip the Iraqis to help themselves.
The president spoke to reporters after a status report meeting with senior officials from the Departments of Defense and State as well as the National Security Council.
In casual dress for the serious talks were Vice President Dick Cheney (search), Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search), Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers (search), National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Bush's former adviser and State Department nominee Karen Hughes.
Issues on the table included the ongoing violence in Iraq, the Middle East peace process and impending Gaza withdrawal, standoffs with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs and anti-American sentiment abroad, especially in the Middle East.
Recent polls suggest Americans strongly support U.S. armed forces but are upset by the ongoing war and casualties in Iraq, including the deaths of more than 1,840 American soldiers. Bush's own approval ratings are hovering below 50 percent.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted Aug. 1 through Aug. 3 showed Bush's overall job approval was at 42 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. That's about where his approval rating has been all summer but is slightly lower than it was when the year began. His approval on his handling of Iraq stood at 38 percent.
Cindy Sheehan (search), a California mother of a fallen soldier, is holding a roadside protest to bring the troops home. Sheehan, who is joined by other anti-war organizations such asCode Pink and Gold Star Mothers of America, said if she doesn't meet the president in Crawford, she will continue to hold vigil outside the White House in Washington.
Bush referred directly to Sheehan, saying he sympathizes with her and know she feels strongly about her beliefs, but he disagrees with her demands.
"I thought long and hard about her position. I've heard her position from others, which is: 'Get out of Iraq now.' And it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so," he said.
The unhurried pace of the one-stoplight town of Crawford stands in sharp contrast to violent and worrisome events across the globe, particularly in Iraq. Bush told reporters that the commanders are moving about 80,000 people from low demand areas to higher demand skills. He said the military is trying to improve its notification of deployments and tours of duty for soldiers called up to serve in Iraq.
"We've provided them with earlier notifications. We've given them greater certainty about the length of their tours. We minimized the number of extensions and repeat mobilizations. We're working hard to ensure our troops and their families are treated with the dignity they deserve and the respect they've earned," he said.
But as for the draw-down of U.S. forces, the administration is saying the deflation of violence as a result of progress on the political front will help the United States and its partners determine when it can begin withdrawing troops next year. The decision will also hinge on the level of violence and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces, which now number 178,000.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee that is identifying areas to revert to Iraqi control will submit its final report by the end of September. That is the first step toward what Gen. George W. Casey, the top commander in Iraq, has said could lead to a "fairly substantial" reduction in the 138,000-strong U.S. force by the spring and summer of next year.
Casey has not disclosed numbers, but Pentagon officials have mentioned a reduction figure of 20,000 to 30,000 troops. That would still leave about 100,000 American troops in Iraq well into next year.
But first the Pentagon will likely have to increase the number of U.S. troops above the current 138,000 to improve security for a planned October referendum and a December election, when a burst of insurgent violence is expected, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said this week.
Last January, when Iraq had its first elections, troop levels were raised as high as 160,000, mainly by overlapping some units arriving in Iraq to begin a one-year tour with those who were ending their yearlong tours. Di Rita said that this time commanders could also ask for volunteers to serve extended tours or send some U.S.-based troops to Iraq to augment the force during the fall election period.
Bush said that the increase in troops during the Iraqi elections seemed to help reduce the violence.
"We did, as you might recall, increase troops for the Iraqi election and for the Afghanistan elections. Seemed to have helped create security. And I know the secretary of defense is analyzing that possibility," he said.
As far as Iran is concerned, Bush indicated that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) will be given a U.S. visa to attend the convening of the United Nations annual meeting next month. He also expressed approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency's remarks warning Iran about restarting its nuclear pursuits in defiance of U.N. prohibitions.
Bush said U.S. investigators have not yet determined whether Ahmadinejad helped lead the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran but as president of his nation, the United States had to separate out this investigation from its obligations as host nation for the New York-based United Nations.
Bush is spending August at his Crawford ranch with occasional day trips to highlight his administration's achievements. On Wednesday, the president went to Illinois to sign a $286 billion highway bill. On Monday, he signed legislation in New Mexico that will redefine U.S. energy policy for the next decade.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.