Iraq war support wanes

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush will try to persuade sceptical Americans this week that the war in Iraq is winnable while shoring up his own weak approval ratings. Neither task will be easy.
As part of a newly honed White House focus on Iraq, Bush will travel to an army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Tuesday to deliver what his aides are billing as a major speech on the conflict.

The speech comes on the anniversary of the handover of sovereignty and the president finds himself on the defensive about Iraq amid lawmaker complaints and polls showing American discontent.

Analysts say that makes a challenge for Bush as he tries to fine-tune his message.

“The bad news from Iraq still trumps his message,” said Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Centre. “It’s going to take stability rather than his statements or speeches to turn this around.”

Bush is likely to cite progress on the political front such as Iraq’s January election and the formation of a committee to write a new constitution by a mid-August deadline.

He is also expected to acknowledge that more struggles lie ahead.

“Our nation’s mission in Iraq is difficult, and we can expect more tough fighting in the weeks and months ahead,” Bush said, previewing the speech in his weekend radio address.

Still, he predicted that the conflict would give way to the “great triumph” of a democratic Iraq.

Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari had a meeting at the White House on Friday, at which Bush rejected calls to set a deadline for a pullout of US troops and Jaafari pressed Americans not to “fall back.”

Bush’s stay-the-course message has become harder to sell. In Congress, some Democrats and even a few Republicans are seeking a timetable for withdrawal.

The US death toll in Iraq has climbed above 1,700 and mounted further last week, when the deaths of six Americans in a bomb attack in Fallujah cast a shadow over Jaafari’s visit to the White House.

Three suicide bomb attacks in the northern city of Mosul killed more than two dozen people on Sunday, many from the Iraqi security forces.

Nearly six in 10 Americans oppose the war, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken June 16-19. Just three months ago, the public was split and a survey taken in 2003, a month after the war began, showed seven in 10 favoured the war.

Such numbers put pressure on Bush to offer specifics about how he plans to prevail over an insurgency that military commanders say has not weakened.

“The thing that will be most important for him to demonstrate is that he understands what’s happening and that he has a plan to deal with it,” said Lee Feinstein, a former Clinton administration official now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If people feel this is unwinnable, they will not support staying.”

Bolstering the military’s morale may be another aim of Bush’s speech at Fort Bragg. Army Gen. John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, has said US troops are asking about the drop in public support for the war and wonder if it will lead to a loss of support for them.

Bush is also likely to draw a link to the war on terror by emphasising foreign fighters’ role in the insurgency. Critics say the invasion has made Iraq a magnet for terrorists even though there was no evidence before the war of a link between Saddam Hussein’s government and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush’s intensive focus earlier this year on changing the US Social Security retirement programme proved unpopular and also hurt him in the polls. In recent weeks, he has retooled his policy message to make Iraq and the economy his main themes.

In the radio address, Bush said he would pursue a two-track plan in Iraq. This involves more training of Iraqis to be responsible of their own security and helping the country build democratic institutions.

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