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Bush Says Iraq Is in a ‘Period of Tension’

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Friday that new sectarian strife had created “a period of tension” in Iraq, as his aides unveiled plans for a series of presidential speeches on what was going right -- and, to a degree, what had gone wrong -- in the conflict.

With U.S. troops facing a continuing insurgency and the threat of civil war in Iraq as the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion approaches, the effort reflects a renewed drive by the White House to explain the policy underlying the war, and the strategy intended to win it, amid deepening public skepticism. The effort follows a similar package of addresses three months ago and a push last summer to win support for the war.

The campaign comes as violence in Iraq has endangered hopes for a U.S. troop reduction this year and as Bush tries to recover from the U.S. ports controversy in which he suffered a rare political defeat on his signature issue of national security.

The president will make three addresses in March about Iraq “to update the American people on our strategy for victory,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. Bush will also discuss lessons learned by U.S. forces and policymakers in Iraq and how to apply them “to fix what is not working.”

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Speaking to the government affairs conference of the National Newspaper Assn., an organization representing smaller newspapers, Bush acknowledged the new phase in Iraq’s turmoil, saying that some were trying to “sow the seeds of sectarian strife.”

“They fear the advancement of a democracy,” he said. “They blow up shrines in order to cause this Iraqi democracy that is emerging to go backwards, to not emerge.... And there’s no question, this is a period of tension in Iraq.”

He praised the response of Iraqi forces and said there was “relative calm” in 16 of 18 provinces. Bush presented economic development in Iraq, establishment of reliable Iraqi forces, and the political progress suggested by three elections there as the three legs of the U.S. strategy. .

But last month’s bombing of the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra, brought new paroxysms of violence that officials acknowledged had edged the country closer to a sectarian civil war dividing Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

“No question there was violence and killing,” Bush said. But, referring to the quiet that followed the imposition of daytime curfews, he added: “The society took a step back from the abyss. And people took a sober reflection about what a civil war would mean.”

Critics, however, have said that the show of force only drove the violence underground, prompting an increase in kidnappings and murders.

Bush had been struggling to regain his political footing on national security even before his latest setback: the successful congressional opposition to a plan by an Arab company to take over some operations at several U.S. ports. Dubai Ports World withdrew from the arrangement, saving Bush from a head-on collision with Congress.

Bush supported the Dubai company in the face of complaints, including from his GOP allies, that its operation of the ports would leave the U.S. vulnerable. But his position undercut what his advisors thought was his greatest political strength: that he had established a bulwark against terrorist threats to the nation’s security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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The speeches will take place near the March 20 anniversary of the 2003 start of the war, a period a senior White House official called a point of “considerable reflection.” Bush will once again approach the public with his case for the invasion and to argue that the situation on the ground is not as difficult as it appears from afar.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of White House policy, said the planned addresses were intended to view conditions in Iraq through a broad lens, to explain what was being done to counter roadside bombs and to “provide the American people greater understanding and context of how the strategy in Iraq is unfolding and adjusting to the situation on the ground.”

The president is expected to speak about Iraq today in his weekly radio address. In addition, he plans to attend a briefing today on the work of a task force, led by retired Army Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, on what the military can do to counter the roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, that have become one of the greatest threats to U.S. ground forces in Iraq.

The White House campaign coincides with its request to Congress for $70 billion in new funding for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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However, there is little indication that past communications and public relations efforts have boosted sagging support for the president and his policies.

For weeks, polls have shown the president’s popularity dropping. At the same time, the news from Iraq has grown increasingly grim.

The latest public opinion survey, the Associated Press-Ipsos poll published Friday, found increasing numbers of Americans, particularly Republicans, disapproving of Bush’s performance in office.

Respondents questioned his character -- 46% said he was dependable, compared with 55% in August -- and offered lowered assessments in areas that had been among his greatest political strengths.

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The poll found that 37% approved of his overall performance, the lowest of his presidency in the AP-Ipsos poll. His job approval among Republicans, though high at 74%, dropped from 82% in February.

Support for his handling of foreign policy and terrorism dropped from 47% to 43%. Approval of his dealings with Iraq remained steady, at about 40%.


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