President Bush on Tuesday answered growing anti-war protests with a fresh reason for American troops to continue fighting in Iraq: protection of the country's vast oil fields that he said would otherwise fall under the control of terrorist extremists.
Bush, standing against a backdrop of the imposing USS Ronald Reagan, the newest aircraft carrier in the Navy's fleet, said terrorists will be denied their goal.
"We will defeat the terrorists," Bush was quoted as saying by the AP. "We will build a free Iraq that will fight terrorists instead of giving them aid and sanctuary."
A one-time oilman, Bush has rejected charges that the war in Iraq is a struggle to control the nation's vast oil wealth. While Bush has avoided making links between the war and Iraq's oil reserves, the soaring cost of gasoline has focused attention on global petroleum sources.
Bush said the Iraqi oil industry, already suffering from sabotage and lost revenues, must not fall under the control of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida forces in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"If Zarqawi and bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks," Bush said. "They'd seize oil fields to fund their ambitions. They could recruit more terrorists by claiming a historic victory over the United States and our coalition."
The speech was Bush's third in just over a week defending his Iraq policies, as the White House scrambles to counter growing public concern about the war. But the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast drew attention away, as the White House announced during the president's remarks that he was cutting his August vacation short to return to Washington to personally oversee the federal response effort.