Bush plans a series of speeches on Iraq

President to tell public that U.S. has winning strategy


WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday 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 is going right - and to a degree what has gone wrong - on the eve of the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that sparked the war.

With U.S. troops facing a continuing insurgency and the threat of civil war in Iraq, the effort reflects a renewed drive by the White House to explain the policy underlying the war, and the strategy intended to win it, in the face of deepening public skepticism.

The effort follows a similar package of addresses three months ago and an earlier push to win support for the war last summer.

The White House campaign comes as continuing violence in Iraq has endangered hopes for a U.S. troop cut this year and as Bush attempts to recover from a showdown over control of U.S. port facilities in which he suffered a rare political defeat on the key issue of national security.

Bush 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 yesterday. At the same time, Bush will address lessons learned by U.S. forces and policymakers in Iraq and how to apply them "to fix what is not working."

Speaking to the government affairs conference of the National Newspaper Association, an organization representing smaller newspapers, Bush acknowledged the new phase in Iraq's turmoil.

"They fear the advancement of a democracy. They blow up shrines in order to cause this Iraqi democracy that is emerging to go backwards, to not emerge," Bush said. "That's what you're seeing on your TV screens. You're seeing the use of violence to try to create strife. And there's no question, this is a period of tension in Iraq."

He praised the response of Iraqi forces and noted that in 16 of 18 provinces "relative calm" prevails.

Bush presented the political progress suggested by three elections in Iraq, economic development, and the establishment of reliable, trained Iraqi forces as the three legs of the U.S. strategy.

But the destruction of the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine struck by a bomb in Samarra on Feb. 22, brought new paroxysms of violence that officials have acknowledged 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."

Others, 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, Dubai Ports World, to take over some operations at 21 U.S. ports, including Baltimore.

The company withdrew from the arrangement, saving Bush from a head-on collision with Congress that he appeared on the verge of losing.

Bush supported the Dubai company in the face of congressional complaints, including from his Republican allies, that its operation of the ports would leave the United States vulnerable. But his position undercut what his advisors feel is his greatest political strength - that he established a bulwark against terrorist threats to the nation's security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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

The official said the addresses are intended to view conditions in Iraq through a broad lens, explain what is being done to counter the roadside bombs that have proved so deadly to American troops, and "provide the American people greater understanding and context of how the strategy in Iraq is unfolding and adjusting to the situation on the ground."

At the same time, he said Bush would acknowledge the anxiety the war has brought to the American public.

He spoke on the condition of anonymity because White House policy blocks him from speaking about the president's planned addresses on the record,

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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