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US president says fight in Iraq against extremism is crucial to US security

President George W. Bush said that the fight against extremists in Iraq is crucial to U.S. security and the future of a strategic, struggling region.

Bush was to speak later Tuesday before thousands of veterans at the American Legion convention. It is his second major speech in a week devoted to an attempt to buttress support for the war.

Last week before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, he likened today's fight against extremism in Iraq to past conflicts in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

On Tuesday, he plans to discuss the implications of the fight in Iraq for the broader Middle East, a global crossroads that has largely missed the democratic and economic advances seen in other parts of the world and is thus vulnerable to the rise of terrorism, said a senior administration official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the president.

The pair of speeches is intended to set the stage for a crucial Sept. 15 assessment of the fighting, particularly whether the additional U.S. forces that Bush ordered to Iraq in January are improving security enough to create an environment for lasting political progress. The report, required by law to be presented to Congress, also is to measure Iraq's performance on U.S. benchmarks for military and political development.

Democrats, as well as some Republicans, are pressing to start the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The president is expected to announce shortly after the report's release whether he intends to do so.

Bush added 30,000 troops to help calm Baghdad and a western province, making the total in Iraq now more than 160,000. At least 3,731 military members have died in the war.

In the next week, Bush and his senior advisers are likely to hear the initial thinking from Ryan Crocker, Bush's envoy in Baghdad, and the top U.S. general in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, another senior administration official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a schedule still in flux.

Bush leaves Monday to spend nearly a week in Australia, but Crocker and Petraeus are expected to testify to Congress as soon as Sept. 10 on the military and political landscape in Iraq more than four years after the start of the war, officials said. The two will give two days of testimony before their report is sent to lawmakers.