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US President George W. Bush strongly defended his Iraq policy in a press conference Thursday, warning that a swift American withdrawal would threaten allies in the region and strengthen forces calling for Israel's destruction.
"The fight in Iraq is part of a broader struggle that's unfolding across the region," he said, singling out groups including Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and countries including Syria and Iran.
"The same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map is also providing sophisticated IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to extremists in Iraq who are using them to kill American soldiers," he told reporters at the White House as part of an assessment on the situation in Iraq.
"All these extremist groups would be emboldened by a precipitous American withdrawal, which would confuse and frighten friends and allies in the region," he said, countering calls from Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans that America begin to withdraw from Iraq.
Declaring that "nations throughout the Middle East have a stake in a stable Iraq," Bush said his administration was "enhancing our military presence, improving our bilateral security ties, and supporting those fighting the extremists across the Middle East."
He cautioned that the reaction to the chaos stemming from weakened American support in Iraq would particularly strengthen Iran.
"Such chaos and violence would send a mixed signal to the Iranians, who have stated that they believe Israel ought to be wiped off the map," he said. "People would begin to wonder about America's resolve. Al-Qaida would certainly be in a better position to raise money and recruit."
He also said that a report showing al-Qaida returning to its 2001 capabilities was being misunderstood, as it referred to 2001 after 9/11.
"Because of the actions we have taken, al-Qaida is weaker today than they would have been," he said, returning to the podium after concluding the press conference in order to take a question on the subject.
"They are still a threat. They are still dangerous. And that is why it is important that we succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq and anywhere else we find them."