As the U.S. presence in Iraq enters its fourth year, President Bush is pointing to concrete signs of progress there, as he seeks to overcome public skepticism about the war. In his latest speech defending his Iraq policy, Mr. Bush also talked about the challenge posed by Iran.
The president traveled to the midwestern city of Cleveland, Ohio, to make the case for continued U.S. involvement in Iraq.
His approach this time was different than in the past. In an effort to counter the bloody images of violence coming from Iraq, he drew his own picture in words of an Iraqi success story. "I am going to tell you the story of a northern Iraqi city, called Tal Afar," he said, "which was once a key base of operations for al-Qaida and is today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq."
In unusually graphic terms, the president talked about the terrorists' reign in the town. He said coalition troops swept through once but left too soon, and the bloodshed resumed. "In one grim incident, the terrorists kidnapped a young boy from the hospital and killed him," said President Bush, "And then they booby-trapped his body and placed him along the road where his family would see him. And when the boy's father came to retrieve his son's body, he was blown up."
Mr. Bush said the coalition realized its mistake. It sent forces back into the city, and this time they stayed, with Iraqi soldiers in the lead. Confidence grew among the civilian population, and the town began to come back to life. "The people of Tal Afar have shown that Iraqis do want peace and freedom, and no one should underestimate them," he said.
The president acknowledged that progress has not been even throughout the U.S.-led occupation, but he said the positive news is far more prevalent than most Americans think, given the bloody images from Iraq they see on television and in newspapers.
Polls show U.S. public support for the war is at its lowest point ever, and several of the questions the president took from members of his Cleveland audience put that skepticism on display.
The president spoke of the differences between pre-war Iraq and the threat posed by present-day Iran. He said the United States hopes there can be a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, but he made clear that contacts between officials in Iran and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, announced last week, are designed to deal solely with the issue of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
"It is very important, however, for the Iranians to understand that the discussion is limited to Iraq," he said. "We feel like they need to know our position."
Mr. Bush said that ultimately, Iraq-Iran relations will be negotiated by their own governments, and he expressed hope that a unity government will be in place soon in Baghdad.