March 10, 2006

Bush in push to bolster support over Iraq

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush vowed on
Friday to do everything possible to prevent civil war in Iraq,
as he laid the groundwork for a public relations drive to shore
up sagging American support for his Iraq policy.

Hampered by low job approval ratings caused in part by
rising discontent over the war in Iraq, Bush planned a series
of speeches starting on Monday to sell the American public on
what the White House called "our strategy for victory."

The effort signals pressure for Bush to defend his handling
of the Iraq situation, a key plank of the presidency, ahead of
midterm elections in November in which the Democrats are
challenging his Republican party for control of Congress.

But it won't be easy to reverse the slide in public

American anti-war sentiment has increased as U.S.
casualties have mounted -- there have been more than 2,300 U.S.
military deaths in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March
2003 -- and sectarian violence has raised the specter of civil
war, denting hopes for the stability needed to start bringing
U.S. troops home.

Asked what he planned to do if civil war broke out, Bush
told a national newspaper group: "Step one is to make sure (to)
do everything we can that there not be one."

In a preview of coming speeches, Bush said a key part of
his strategy was based on the training of Iraqis to take over
security from U.S. forces, a process he said was going well.

"I know people in your parts of the world wonder how long
the troops are going to be there. They're going to be there as
long as the commanders on the ground say they're necessary to
achieve victory," he said.

"But they're coming home as the Iraqis are more likely to
be able to take the fight to the enemy," Bush added.

There are currently 132,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday the U.S.
military would rely primarily on Iraq's security forces to put
down a civil war if one erupted.

However, some analysts have questioned how capable Iraqi
security forces would be without the aid of U.S. forces, the
degree to which they are loyal to the central government and
how deeply they have been infiltrated by insurgents.

Iraqi security forces have been tested in recent weeks by a
wave of sectarian strife in which hundreds have been killed
following the February 22 bombing of a major Shi'ite mosque.
The violence has stalled efforts to forge a unity government.

Signaling growing unease, nearly four out of five
Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans, believe civil
war will break out in Iraq, according to an Associated
Press/IPSOS poll released on Friday.

Bush's new public relations push comes at a time when his
approval ratings are languishing below 40 percent, the lowest
point of his presidency.

His popularity has suffered not only because of the Iraq
war but because of his handling of the U.S. economy as well as
his support for a state-owned Arab company's attempt -- now
abandoned -- to take over operations at a string of major U.S.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush would aim
to talk about progress on the ground in Iraq and lessons
learned there.

The speeches coincide with the approaching three-year
anniversary of the invasion, launched originally for the stated
purpose of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Such
weapons were never found.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland)