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Painting current U.S. wars as part of an honorable continuum of "the great struggles of the 20th century," President Bush told thousands of veterans that "a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of the 21st century."

In a Monday morning speech at the Salt Palace, where the Veterans of Foreign Wars is holding its annual national convention, Bush repeatedly tied U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan to the battles fought by those in his audience.

His words, though warmly received by those in attendance, came at a time when the president is facing increased criticism and weakened support for his policies in Iraq. In Utah, where Bush was elected with 71.5 percent support in 2004, more than 44 percent say the U.S. effort to bring stability to Iraq is going badly, according to a poll conducted earlier this summer by Brigham Young University.

Even some prominent Republicans say the battle is being lost and it is time for Bush to put forward an exit strategy. In widely publicized comments made to reporters last week, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel compared the situation in Iraq to Vietnam, where he served as an infantry squad leader, earning two Purple Hearts.

Bush did not directly mention Vietnam or its veterans in his speech, though he made repeated references to World War II, the Cold War and the Korean conflict. And to calls from Hagel and others for an exit strategy, he repeated an earlier promise.

"As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down," he said. "And when Iraqi forces can defend their freedom . . . our troops will come home with the honor they have earned."

The pledge drew loud applause, as did Bush's repeated vows "to take the fight to the terrorists abroad before they can attack us here at home."

Those words struck a particular chord with George Dennis, a World War II veteran who fought in the South Pacific and said that, as a result of his experiences, he desperately wants to prevent similar fighting from ever spreading onto U.S. soil.

"We're on the offensive instead of the defense," Dennis said, echoing statements of other veterans in attendance. "And that's the proper thing to do."

Terrorists, Dennis said, "declared war on us." The 85-year-old Las Vegas man said he firmly agrees with the president's decision to attack Afghanistan, and then Iraq, in response.

The president made six direct references in his speech to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He did not mention so-called weapons of mass destruction - which never materialized in Iraq - that his administration originally had claimed justified making a pre-emptive strike against the government of Iraq's then-president, Saddam Hussein.

VFW members were less willing to give Bush a pass on claims that his administration has done much to improve the lot of the nation's veterans.

"They may have increased the [budget] numbers, but it hasn't kept up with all the veterans who are coming in," said George Watts, a South Carolina veteran who said he continues to see problems accessing Veterans Affairs services despite the president's claims that more money is flowing into the system.

The sentiment was amplified by Democrats eager to find a wedge between the president and a group that largely supports him on other issues.

"Republicans have underfunded veterans' health care even as waiting lists for soldiers returning from Iraq grow, proposed to increase financial burdens on veterans, and continued to bar entire groups of veterans, including combat veterans, from even entering the VA health care system," House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said in a statement released after Bush's speech.

Utah veteran advocates noted that troops coming off active duty are being granted two years of health care in the VA system. An increase in funds that Bush referred to is being stretched among a larger pool of patients.

In remarks made earlier in the morning, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson also criticized the Bush administration for not ensuring adequate health care for veterans with the same fervor that it promotes tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

Anderson later joined with hundreds assembled at Pioneer Park to protest Bush's policies.

Not all protesters confined themselves to the park. Kevin Cummins said he "simply walked into" the Salt Palace at the end of the speech, unchecked by security, and approached within 15 feet of Bush, who was shaking hands and signing autographs near the stage.

Nearly face to face with the president, Cummins nervously unfurled a small black-and-white banner reading: "The Bush administration: A well 'oiled' machine."

The sign was ripped from the protester's hands, to cheers from surrounding VFW members, and Cummins was escorted from the building, though he noted the men who asked him to leave "were quite polite about it."

Bush did not appear to even notice Cummins, or his removal from the area, and continued to shake hands and draw his autograph on photographs, papers and even a Bible that was passed his way.

The speech was Bush's fourth before the VFW National Convention and marked his second visit to Utah since his first inauguration. The president last visited the Beehive State - which has twice voted overwhelmingly in his favor - for opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Games.

The return trip did not last long, however. The Boeing 747 known as Air Force One touched down at 10:34 a.m. and left at 12:35 p.m., en route for Idaho, where the president is scheduled to spend a day at rest before speaking again in Nampa on Wednesday.

The president and Laura Bush traveled to Utah from Waco, Texas, with Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who shared breakfast with controversial Bush aide and former Utahn Karl Rove and made remarks at the convention prior to the president's speech.

In his remarks, Hatch credited Bush with the advent of peaceful progress and democratic movements in the Middle East, including Libyan President Momar Khadafi's decision to abolish his nation's weapons program, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to remove Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and Syria's decision to end its occupation of Lebanon.

Hatch also told the audience that Bush was responsible for the absence of any terrorist strikes on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, though the president acknowledged attacks have occurred since then "in Bali, in Riyadh, in Istanbul, and Madrid, and Baghdad, and London, and Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere."

Again reminding his audience of its sacrifices, however, Bush said the task of "spreading freedom is the work of generations."

"Freedom has contended with hateful ideologies before," he said. "We defeated fascism; we defeated communism; and we will defeat the hateful ideology of the terrorists who attacked America."


Tribune reporters Heather May and Matt Canham contributed to this story.