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Bush Begins Push for Support on Iraq


President Bush says he is optimistic that Iraq will not collapse into civil war following sectarian violence sparked by last month's bombing of a sacred Shi'ite shrine. Mr. Bush begins a series of speeches this month, meant to reassure Americans about his strategy for success in Iraq.

Amid the reprisal killings that followed last month's bombing of a Shi'ite mosque in Samara, President Bush says the Iraqi people took a step back from what he calls the abyss of civil war with a sober reflection on what such violence would mean for their future.

"I am optimistic that the Iraqi people will overcome the challenges they face. And my optimism is based upon reality on the ground," said Mr. Bush. "There were some people, obviously, trying to foment sectarian violence. Some have called it a civil war, but it didn't work."

The president spoke to reporters Saturday following a White House briefing on Iraq with top U.S. military officials. He praised Iraqi security forces and religious leaders for restoring relative calm in 16 of the country's 18 provinces. He says plans for a first meeting of the new Iraqi parliament on March 19 are an important step toward stopping future violence.

"I'm optimistic that the leadership recognizes that sectarian violence will undermine the capacity for them to self-govern," he added. "I believe, we will have a unity government in place that will help move the process forward. I fully recognize that the nature of the enemy is such that they want to convince the world that we cannot succeed in Iraq. I know we are going to succeed, if we don't lose our will."

U.S. public opinion polls show nearly four of five Americans, and 70 percent of the president's own party, believe Iraq will disintegrate into civil war. The latest Associated Press poll puts Mr. Bush's approval rating at just 37 percent, the lowest of his presidency.

In his weekly radio address, Mr. Bush said he understands why many Americans are wondering if the mission in Iraq was worth it, amid the daily news of car bombs and kidnappings and brutal killings.

The body of murdered American hostage Tom Fox was found Thursday. The Christian peace activist was abducted along with three other Western aid workers in November.

President Bush did not directly mention Fox in his radio address. He said American security is directly linked to the liberty of the Iraqi people, and he is confident his strategy will result in victory.

"The last three years have tested our resolve," he noted. "The fighting has been tough. The enemy we face has proved to be brutal and relentless. We have changed our approach in many areas to reflect the hard realities on the ground. And the sacrifice being made by our young men and women who wear the uniform has been heartening and inspiring."

With U.S. troops in Iraq approaching their third anniversary since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration is opening a campaign to reassure Americans that the White House has a strategy for success in Iraq.

President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will all be part of the push to restate that political, economic, and security strategy.

The president says he will focus on the progress U.S. forces are making, the lessons they have learned, and how leaders are fixing what has not worked. In a speech in Washington on Monday, he will talk about defeating terrorists and training Iraqi security forces to defend their own democracy..

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