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President Bush used his appearance before a friendly Veterans of Foreign Wars crowd Monday in Utah to make a spirited defense of his conduct of the war in Iraq.

"A policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety," Bush said in his morning speech at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City. "The only way to defend our citizens is to go after the terrorists where they live."

Noting the 1,864 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and the 223 who have died in Afghanistan, Bush said "each of these heroes has left a legacy." And he vowed that the military will "finish the task that they gave their lives for."

His speech before the thousands of members of the VFW was his first public appearance in a week. He has been vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, while a gathering anti-war movement camps down the road.

Polls indicate erosion of support for the Iraq war, although administration policies still enjoy solid backing in Utah and the neighboring state of Idaho, where the president is scheduled to spend tonight, tomorrow and part of Wednesday.

Monday in Utah, Bush called Iraq "an essential front in the war on terror. It is a vital part of our mission."

He said Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists are determined to prevail in Iraq because "they know a free Iraq will deal a decisive blow to their strategy to achieve absolute power."

But Bush said America is just as determined.

"Our goal is clear - to secure a more peaceful world for our children and our grandchildren. We will accept nothing less than total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology."

In downtown Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park, between 1,000 and 2,000 anti-war protesters gathered to speak and demonstrate against the continuing fighting in Iraq.

Organizers were thrilled at the turnout and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson called on Utahns to make the protest a turning point in national opposition to Bush policies in Iraq and on environmental issues.

"Our nation was lied into a war," said Anderson, who was booed by VFW members earlier in the day but cheered by Bush protesters in Pioneer Park.

Protest organizer Eileen McCabe-Olsen, said: "A fire has been lit."

Celeste Zappala, a co-founder of Gold Star Families, and the mother of a son killed in Baghdad, said she was amazed by the size of the anti-war demonstration in conservative Utah, which gave Bush his largest margin of victory in the past two elections.

The president's schedule called for him to depart Utah immediately following his VFW Convention appearance and head to the tiny town of Donnelly, Idaho, where he was to spend a couple of days mountain biking and relaxing prior to a speech Wednesday before a National Guard group in Nampa, Idaho.