WASHINGTON -- President Bush vowed yesterday that the United States ''will not run" from Iraq as it did from Vietnam. He also welcomed voting on the Iraqi constitution and called it a step forward for democracy.
Speaking near the close of voting on the Iraqi charter, which is aimed at reshaping Iraq's political structure after Saddam Hussein, Bush also praised the draft charter, which Shi'ites and Kurds support, but which many Sunni Arabs oppose.
''This constitution is the result of months of debate and compromise by representatives of Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious communities," Bush said in his weekly radio address. ''These leaders came together to produce a document that protects fundamental freedoms and lays the foundation for a lasting democracy."
Bush said the vote itself was ''a critical step forward in Iraq's march toward democracy."
The Iraqi referendum took place as opinion polls in the United States have reported an erosion of support for the war and for Bush's leadership. The US military death toll is approaching 2,000.
Approval of the constitution would pave the way for a vote on a government on Dec. 15. An approval also could affect whether the United States is able to reduce its 156,000 troop presence in Iraq.
In his address, Bush quoted heavily from a letter that US officials say is from Ayman al-Zawahri, who is described as second-in-command to the group's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
US officials said that the July 9 letter had been obtained during operations in Iraq, but that the Al Qaeda wing in Iraq has dismissed it as a fake.
The letter urges Zarqawi to prepare for an Islamic government takeover of Iraq when US forces leave. It also warns him against the killing of civilians in Iraq, saying it could undermine support for an Islamic state.
Bush said in his radio address that the letter shows that the insurgency in Iraq is aimed at ''a larger goal of imposing Islamic radicalism across the broader Middle East."
Bush also highlighted a passage in the letter that pointed to the US withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s as a sign that a retreat is inevitable.
''Al Qaeda believes that America can be made to run again. They are gravely mistaken. America will not run, and we will not forget our responsibilities," Bush said.
Also yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the calm of the vote in Iraq. She voiced hope that Iraqis seemed to be voting in large numbers. Rice was in Europe for consultations with British and Russian leaders on Iran's nuclear program.