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For Bush, another key moment in the war

Times Staff Writer

One speech was famously delivered on an aircraft carrier in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. In another, he acknowledged the previous year in Iraq had not turned out well. Frequently, he has stressed the theme that the United States must fight terrorists in Iraq, or “they will not leave us alone.”

In more than half a dozen speeches to the nation about Iraq, President Bush has presented his case for the now more than 4-year-old war. His emphasis has shifted as conditions have changed. He has grudgingly recognized mistakes -- and even that some of the intelligence on Iraq turned out to be faulty.

But, always, he has held out the prospect of success.

Seeking to build on this week’s testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Bush is planning to deliver another prime-time address to the nation tonight, on the eve of his delivery to Congress of a major report assessing the progress of the war.

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Bush is expected to indicate his support for Petraeus’ plan to slowly draw down the 30,000 troops sent to Iraq in the so-called surge, but leave a force of 130,000 into next summer.

The speech, to be delivered from the White House at 6:01 p.m. PDT, will be Bush’s most visible effort to answer congressional pressure to begin a major withdrawal of troops. With Congress back from its summer recess, key decisions are looming on the administration’s latest requests to pay for the war.

By midday Wednesday, White House speechwriters had gone through more than 20 drafts, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said.

Bush is planning to follow tonight’s speech with another Friday at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va. Vice President Dick Cheney is also scheduled to speak Friday before a military audience, at the Tampa, Fla., headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations across the Middle East.

Whether speaking from an intimate, dignified setting in the White House or before a symbolic, photogenic backdrop provided by uniformed troops, Bush has sought to use his addresses to the nation to mark key moments.

On the deck of the returning aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, for example, barely six weeks after U.S. troops first crossed into Iraq, he declared an end to major combat operations after Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

But he has also used them to try to mobilize support, pressure Congress and sway the views of a public that has gone from supportive to wavering to opposed to the war.

On a Sunday night six days before Christmas in 2005, with the war nearing the end of its second year and support sagging, Bush, speaking from the Oval Office, called for patience -- and acknowledged that his decision to launch the war was based in part on faulty intelligence about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It was a major concession on Bush’s part, and he coupled it with a declaration that the United States was on the road to victory, saying, “Not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.”

Speaking from the White House library Jan. 10, Bush presented his argument that averting defeat in Iraq required at least 20,000 additional troops -- the number turned out to be closer to 30,000 when support troops were added -- as he acknowledged for the first time that his previous strategy had failed.

He did not say how long the troop increase would last, but military strategists said at the time that anything shorter than 18 months would probably be ineffective.

Petraeus’ testimony to Congress this week echoed those assessments. The general indicated it would be next summer before the troop levels could be brought back to 130,000 -- prompting critics to point out that one year from now, the troop levels will be just where they were a year ago.

Since 2003, the president has woven a theme into his speeches; that Iraq is the “central front” in what he calls the war on terror -- a designation that some intelligence experts and political opponents say belongs to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are rebuilding. And he has frequently delivered warnings that terrorists must be defeated in Iraq “before they can attack us at home.”

The timing of tonight’s speech, two days after the nation marked the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, provides Bush one more opportunity to make that connection as he seeks to create another turning point in the political debate about the war.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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