Bush: It Would Be a Terrible Mistake to Leave Iraq

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Quitting and bailing out of Iraq is not an exit strategy, both President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday, one day before the president delivers a major speech about measuring progress in Iraq and against any rush to get U.S. troops out of there.

"It would be a terrible mistake" to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq before the appropriate time, Bush said in El Paso, Texas. He added that politics should not play any part in a decision about withdrawal.

"We will make decisions about troops levels based upon the capability of the Iraqis to take the fight to the enemy," Bush said in El Paso, Texas. "I will make decisions on the level of troops based upon the recommendations of commanders on the ground."

At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said he's optimistic about Iraqis taking over more of Iraq. He offered specifics about the groundwork being laid out for what is shaping up to be the administration's push for a "victory strategy" for Iraq.

In a preview of the president's speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the defense secretary listed accomplishments made by the Iraqi security forces. He said 95 battalions, about 50,000 of the 212,000 Iraqi force, are trained, equipped and in the fight against insurgents.

He said Iraqi forces control 87 square miles of Baghdad, one entire province, and 450 square miles of territory in other provinces. The Iraqi army has seven division and 31 brigade headquarters in operation. Twenty-nine military bases are operated by Iraqis.

Rumsfeld insisted that Iraqis are stepping forward and U.S. troops are stepping back.

"We've been passing over bases; we've been passing real estate; we've been turning over responsibilities. I mean, what else can you do? Nothing happens at the same time, in one fell swoop. This is hard stuff for them. It's isn't going to be perfect. But, by golly, the people who've been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong. They've been wrong from the beginning. They're doing a darn good job, and they're doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month. And they have to, because it's their country," Rumsfeld said.

Quitting the war would allow insurgents to prevail and put the United States "at still greater risk," he said. "Quitting is not an exit strategy."

Rumsfeld said he's hopeful the Dec. 15 election will be the tipping point where Iraqis step up and take control.

"They have to do it for themselves," Rumsfeld said. "There isn't an Iraqi that comes into this country and visits with me that doesn't say that. They know that. They know that they're the ones that are going to have to grab that country. And it's time."

The war in Iraq and the mounting number of American casualties have contributed to a steep drop in Bush's popularity. His approval rating is at the lowest level of his presidency.

Talking with reporters Tuesday, Bush said he would make decisions about troop levels based on the advice of military commanders.

"If they tell me the Iraqis are ready to take more and more responsibility and that we'll be able to bring some Americans home, I will do that," the president said. "It's their recommendation."

"Secondly, we want to win," Bush said. "The whole objective is to achieve victory against the terrorists."

"I'm interested in winning. I want to defeat the terrorists. And I want our troops to come home," the president said. "But I don't want them to come home without having achieved victory. We've got a strategy for victory."

"People don't want me making decisions based on politics," the president said. "They want me making decisions based on the recommendations of our generals on the ground. And that's exactly who I'll be listening to."

Bush added: "We've heard some people say, 'pull them out right now.' That's a huge mistake. It'd be a terrible mistake. It sends a bad message to our troops. And it sends a bad message to our enemy. And it sends a bad message to the Iraqis."

The U.S. strategy has been built on an expectation that training a competent Iraqi security force and facilitating the election of a democratic government would stabilize the country and allow a gradual U.S. military exit, possibly starting in 2006.

Rumsfeld said the more the insurgents in Iraq "make it sound as though we are going to quit or lose," the more encouraged they will become and the more successful they will be in raising money and recruiting insurgents.

He added that he doesn't like using the word "insurgent" anymore because those fighting are enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government. Rumsfeld added the enemy doesn't warrant the title insurgent because most citizens in Iraq are not supporting their cause.

FOX News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.