“We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission” – That was the message from George W.Bush today as he confronted his critics over US strategy in Iraq. However, speaking to a largely military audience in Maryland, he said that improvements had been made in Iraq’s own forces, thereby paving the way for a US pullout.“As the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down,” he said. “And when our mission of defeating the terrorists in Iraq is complete, our troops will return home to a proud nation.” The US president rejected setting a deadline to withdraw – saying this would send a message to the world that the US was weak and an unreliable ally. “America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief,” he added. The president’s counter-offensive comes amid growing unease at home over his handling of Iraq, where violence continues to rage. Earlier this week, the Pentagon indicated that several thousand US troops are set to head home, following next month’s Iraqi elections.