Bush defends Iraq war strategy

CLEVELAND, Ohio (AFP) — US President George W. Bush defended his Iraq war strategy Monday, as the conflict entered its fourth year amid mounting sectarian strife and lower-than-ever support in the United States. Bush, in what aides have described as an antidote to media reporting on the violence clouding Iraq’s future, travelled here to deliver the second in a series of speeches to promote signs of progress.

In his weekly radio address, the president said Saturday that he would emphasise US cooperation with Iraq’s fledgling security forces “to remove the terrorists and restore order in Iraqi cities, to rebuild homes and communities, and to achieve the stability that can come only from freedom.

“I will also share some concrete examples of how this approach is succeeding — evidence of real progress that is too often lost amid the more dramatic reports of violence,” he said.

Bush’s trip to this vote-rich state came six months before November legislative elections in which his Republicans fear voter backlash over the war and other issues may cost them control of the US Congress.

US opinion polls have found support for the war at a new low, and Bush mired in approval ratings at or below 40 per cent, amid a growing chorus of calls for a swift withdrawal from Iraq, where some 2,300 US soldiers have been killed.

One of Ohio’s two Republican senators, Mike DeWine, who supports the war, is facing a stiff challenge from Democratic Representative Sherrod Brown, who voted against the war in 2002 and accuses the Bush administration of botching it.

Bush said Sunday he had been informed by the US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad “of the progress the Iraqis are making toward forming a unity government” three months after national elections were held.

“We are implementing a strategy that will lead to victory in Iraq and a victory in Iraq will make this country more secure and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come,” the president said at the White House.

Vice President Dick Cheney and General George Casey, commander of US military forces in Iraq, also said they remain optimistic that a stable democratic society can emerge.

Both also rejected claims by former Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi and several US lawmakers that Iraq has already fallen into civil war.

Cheney told CBS television Sunday that the violence only reflects “desperation” by Al Qaeda to foment civil war.

“That’s been their strategy all along, but my view would be they’ve reached a stage of desperation… They are doing everything they can to stop the formation of a democratically elected government.

“I don’t think they’ve been successful,” the US vice president said.

Casey told Fox News that an Iraq civil war was neither “imminent” nor “inevitable.”

“I personally don’t believe … that we’re there now [in a civil war],” he said.

“I believe that as the leadership of this country comes forward, forms the government of national unity and that begins to move forward… you’ll gradually see these tensions ebb.”

Iraq marked the third anniversary of the US-led invasion on Monday with a fresh spate of killings, a deadlock over the new government and warnings of civil war as Shiites gathered in the south for a major religious ceremony.

In Baghdad, nine corpses showing signs of torture and gunshot wounds turned up around the city in what has become a daily ritual following the February 22 dynamiting of a Shiite shrine in Samarra that ushered in a wave of sectarian violence.

“We are losing each day an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more,” Allawi told the BBC Sunday. “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is.”

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