Bush seeks to convince voters he hasn't lost control in Iraq

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IT CAME in the middle of one of the bloodiest periods in the United States’ occupation of Iraq, but in his rare televised address to the nation George Bush, the US president, sought to bring an end to growing concern that the situation was spiralling out of control.

With the death toll over the last two weeks surpassing that of the war more than a year ago, Mr Bush reiterated his commitment to finishing the messy job which had begun so smoothly, and admitted that more US troops might be heading for Iraq with authority to use decisive force in a mission that "may become more difficult before it is finished".

In bars, restaurants and living- rooms across the country, US citizens tuned in to watch the address halfway through what is becoming the most dangerous month for troops in Iraq.

"Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens," Mr Bush said. "I don’t. It’s a tough time for the American people to see that. It’s gut-wrenching."

The address, and the question-and-answer session that followed, stuck to the two subjects of Iraq and the US government’s reaction to warning signs about terrorists before the attacks of 11 September, 2001 - twin themes Mr Bush has made central to his re-election campaign but on which his support in polls has declined markedly.

Nonetheless, Mr Bush expressed confidence he would win over voters in elections this November. "I don’t plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that I’ve got a plan to win the war on terror. And I believe they’ll stay with me," he said.

John Kerry, the likely Democratic Party candidate in the presidential election, said Mr Bush had failed to explain how he would stabilise Iraq.

"We need to set a new course in Iraq," Mr Kerry said. "We need to internationalise the effort and put an end to the American occupation.

"We need to open up the reconstruction of Iraq to other countries. We need a real transfer of political power to the UN [United Nations]."

Even as Mr Bush outlined what he portrayed as a detailed map to success in Iraq, his appearance was every bit as much about trying to shift opinion on the US mission.

According to polls, approval of his handling of Iraq among Americans has declined to the mid-40 per cent level, and approval for his handling of terrorism has dipped into the mid-50s. Growing numbers say the military action in Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism.

Perhaps most surprising was Mr Bush’s switch from a consistently upbeat view of the situation in Iraq to what he acknowledged was a "pretty sombre assessment" of the difficulties there.

He talked of "tough weeks" and "serious violence", acknowledging that recent developments have been hard on the military and their relatives, on the US public and on his own administration.

He also admitted, for the first time, that Iraqis are not entirely pleased with the situation created by the war. "They’re not happy they’re occupied. I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied either," Mr Bush said.

The public’s reaction to Mr Bush’s comments was mixed yesterday.

Robert Starks, 60, a political science professor at Northeastern Illinois University, said the president’s answers to reporters’ questions were "vapid, confusing and evasive", and called Mr Bush "an abomination to a great nation".

But Dennis Nelson, the commander of an American Legion post in Tampa, Florida, said Mr Bush was as he needed to be in his prime-time address to the nation: strong, direct and resolute that the US will finish the job in Iraq, no matter what.

However, the speech failed to reassure some of Mr Bush’s supporters. Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said: "I am obviously a supporter of the war, so I don’t need to be convinced. But among people who were doubtful or worried, I don’t think he made arguments that would convince them. He didn’t explain how we are going to win there."