WASHINGTON — With approval ratings flagging, and growing concern about Iraq's conflict spiraling into a civil war, President Bush launched a new public relations drive Monday to bolster support for the U.S. presence there, saying, "We will not lose our nerve."
In a speech at George Washington University in the capital, Bush delivered the first in a series of planned speeches aimed at convincing Americans he has a strategy for victory, nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion.
The president detailed progress in training Iraq's military and police forces, and discussed ongoing efforts to counter the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers and of Iraqis.
In the address, Bush called on Iraqis to embrace compromise as they negotiate a new unity government and asked Americans to show patience amid “images of violence and anger and despair.”
“The situation in Iraq is still tense,” Bush said in the first of a new series of speeches aimed at building support for the U.S. goals there.
The Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Iraq led to the deaths of hundreds in reprisal attacks. But though many fear the country may still be on the brink of civil war among rival Muslim sects, Bush said he was he was confident that would not happen.
Iraqis ‘will oppose violent minority’
“The Iraqi people made their choice. They looked into the abyss and did not like what they saw,” he said. “By their response over the last two weeks, Iraqis have shown the world they want a future of freedom and peace and they will oppose a violent minority.”
Bush said that forming a new permanent government that represents all factions in Iraq is a key — though difficult — next step. Talks are under way to put together Iraq’s first permanent, post-invasion government with participation by Sunni Arabs, Shiite Muslims and Kurds.
“Forming a government will demand negotiation and compromise by the Iraqis; it will require patience on the part of America and her allies,” he said. “Out of this process, a free government will emerge that represents the will of the Iraqi people instead of the will of one cruel dictator.”
Bush is engaging in a public relations offensive to combat growing concern about the military mission in Iraq. Only 39 percent of Americans support the way the president has handled Iraq, according to the latest AP-Ipsos poll. Nearly four out of five Americans, including 70 percent of Republicans, believe civil war will break out in Iraq, the poll showed.
‘Strong performance’ of Iraqi troops
Bush chose to focus in his opening speech on Iraqi security forces. He said that even though they need more training, they “turned in a strong performance” in the wake of the mosque bombing — which the president said was intended by insurgents to provoke a civil war.
“From the outset, Iraqi forces understood that if they failed to stand for national unity, the country would slip into anarchy,” Bush said. “And so they stood their ground and defended their democracy.”
He acknowledged, however, that not all Iraqi forces performed as well as others, and said there were reports that some forces in eastern Iraq had let insurgents pass by unimpeded.
Bush also used the forum to accuse Iran of contributing to the unrest in Iraq, saying some of the homemade bombs that are wreaking havoc in the country came from that Iraq's eastern neighbor.
"Some of the most powerful IEDs (improvised explosive devices) we are seeing in Iraq today include components that came from Iran," he said.
Remotely controlled explosive devices have taken a heavy toll on U.S. military forces in Iraq and Bush said some of the best minds in America are working to find ways to combat them.
Quoting his national intelligence director John Negroponte, Bush said Iran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of attacks in Iraq.
"Coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran," Bush said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.