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Bush contests protest by military mother

Immediate withdrawal of troops in Iraq would weaken US, he asserts

DONNELLY, Idaho -- President Bush took on the California mother who has been defiantly protesting outside his Texas ranch, saying yesterday that Cindy Sheehan doesn't represent the views of most of military families he has met with and that fulfilling demands like hers for withdrawal from Iraq would weaken the United States.

Bush said he understood the anguish of the woman whose son was killed in Iraq last year. But he said he disagreed with her assertion that US troops should be brought home before more die in a ''senseless war."

''I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq, but the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States," Bush said.

The president said US troops in Iraq are keeping Americans safe and that Iraqis are making progress toward democracy. He urged patience as officials in Baghdad struggle to complete a constitution.

''The fact that they're even writing a constitution is vastly different from living under the iron hand of a dictator," Bush said.

Bush also said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel had made a tough and courageous decision to withdraw Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. He said the next step was to establish a government in Gaza that responds to the Palestinian people.

Bush spoke at the Tamarack Resort in Idaho, where he is spending two nights. His visit to the mountain getaway is being made between two speeches to rally support for the war -- one Monday in Salt Lake City and the other today in Nampa, Idaho, that is to be followed by more than two hours of private meetings with relatives of soldiers who have died.

The president met Sheehan last year at a similar series of meetings with families of the war dead. But Sheehan says there have been developments since then and she has more she wants to say to Bush.

Her vigil in Crawford, Texas, has given momentum to the peace movement, and even some Republicans have said Bush should meet with her. She flew to Los Angeles last week after her 74-year-old mother had a stroke, but she is expected to return to Texas in a few days.

''Well, I did meet with Cindy Sheehan," Bush said yesterday. ''I strongly support her right to protest. There's a lot of people protesting, and there's a lot of points of view about the Iraq war."

''She expressed her opinion. I disagree with it," he added.

At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked about Sheehan's vigil and what he would say to her. ''While it has to be a heart-wrenching thing for each of the families involved, our task is to try to help them and the country understand the importance of the work that's being done," he said.

Bush spoke once before about Sheehan, during a foreign policy summit at his ranch Aug. 11. He said then, too, that he sympathized with her but disagreed with her call to bring the troops home immediately.

He said yesterday, ''She doesn't represent the view of a lot of the families I have met with."

After speaking to reporters, Bush went for a bike ride and then had dinner plans with Governor Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and the state's congressional delegation.

Bush spoke a day after the Iraqi parliament missed a second deadline to approve a draft constitution. Iraqi leaders completed a draft and submitted it to parliament by the midnight deadline, but they delayed a vote for three days to give them time to persuade Sunni Arab negotiators to accept it.

''The Sunnis have got to make a choice," Bush said. ''Do they want to live in a society that's free, or do they want to live in violence?

''And I suspect most mothers, no matter what their religion may be, will choose a free society so that their children can grow up in a peaceful world."

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