America turns on Bush over Iraq

Three in five want troops out as President vows to stay
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The Independent US

Beset by fading public support for the war and growing violence on the ground, President George Bush flatly rejected any timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq, vowing the United States would stay until the insurgency was defeated and democracy had been established.

"This is a time of testing, a critical time," Mr Bush acknowledged yesterday after a meeting at the White House with Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Iraqi Prime Minister. The insurgents "feel that if they can shake our will and affect our public opinion, we'll give up on the mission. But I'm not giving up the mission, we're doing the right thing". The President was speaking amid unprecedented challenges to his whole Iraq policy. A week of carnage in that country was capped by news that six marines were killed on Thursday in the former rebel stronghold of Fallujah, lifting the total American death toll in Iraq to a total of 1,730.

Several victims were believed to be female marines. The Pentagon said they died when a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle as a US military convoy was passing. The attack is the 479th recorded car bombing since the handover of sovereignty on 28 June 2004. Even more serious is the ebbing support on the home front. Polls show a majority of Americans believe the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein was a mistake. Some 60 per cent now favour a troop pullout, while Mr Bush's approval rating has tumbled to little more than 40 per cent, the lowest of any second-term president since Richard Nixon in the throes of Watergate.

Tense Congressional hearings moreover laid bare this week the growing divide between the sombre assessments of the situation from US commanders on the ground, and the resolutely optimistic picture painted by the civilian leadership - notably the recent assertion by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, that the insurgency was "in its last throes". In a bid to rally public support, Mr Bush will deliver a televised address on Iraq when he visits the army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Despite appearances, progress was being made, the President insisted. At every major step, from January's elections to the agreement to bring more Sunnis into the constitution-writing process, "the Iraqi people have met their strategic objectives". The way ahead would not be easy, and US and Iraqiforces were facing "a violent and ruthless enemy", Mr Bush said.

Mr Jaafari sounded equally determined, arguing against any withdrawal timetable for US troops. He spoke of "steady and substantial progress", adding that the constitution would be completed on scheduled and "there is a will in Iraq to succeed". For all the brave talk, however, the spectre of Vietnam is stirring. In terms of duration and casualties, the two conflicts are hardly comparable - the Vietnam war lasted a decade, and claimed 58,000 US lives, while fewer than 2,000 American troops have died in Iraq since the invasion two years ago.

But the similarities in the national mood are hard to ignore. The word "quagmire" has returned to the debate - Mr Bush even made a joking reference to it yesterday, when asked by a journalist about his declining popularity and political difficulties.

More serious is a decline in public support for the war, which proved fatal to the Vietnam enterprise three decades ago. Republicans and Democrats are complaining that the administration has no credible plan for victory, while General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces in Iraq, has voiced the military's alarm over the public mood.

Troops in Iraq were becoming aware of the decline in enthusiasm for the war at home, General Abizaid told a Congressional hearing, and the troops were asking him "whether or not they've got support from the American people". While confidence among soldiers in the field was high, "I've never seen the lack of confidence greater" among politicians in Washington.

Speaking of his native South Carolina, Senator Lindsay Graham told General Abizaid that "in the most patriotic state I can imagine, people are beginning to question ... I think we have a chronic problem on our hands." The blame lies mainly with the unrelenting tide of bad news. Grim images of Baghdad streets devastated by Thursday's car bombings dominated the main US papers yesterday. "They know the carnage they wreak will be on TV. They know it bothers Americans to see death. It bothers the Iraqis. It bothers me," Mr Bush said.

One year on

* 28 JUNE 2004

US hands sovereignty to interim government

* 1 JULY

Saddam Hussein, in court for the first time, declares himself president of Iraq

* 14 JULY

Lord Butler clears Tony Blair of any deliberate attempt to "mislead" the country before the war

* 28 JULY

68 people die when a suicide car bomb explodes outside a police recruiting centre in central Baquba


American forces say they killed at least 300 militia fighters during a two-day battle in the holy city of Najaf


US troops set up a cordon around Najaf's Imam Ali mosque and ancient cemetery as Mehdi Army vows to destroy the occupying forces


Thousands of American troops fight their way into rebel stronghold of Fallujah to start all-out assault

* 30 JANUARY 2005

Eight million Iraqis vote for a transitional national assembly. Shia United Iraqi Alliance wins majority of assembly seats

* 31 MARCH

US spy agencies were "dead wrong" in "almost all" their pre-war judgements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, a commission appointed by President George Bush says

* 11 MAY

More than 60 people are killed when at least five explosions rock Baghdad, Tikrit and Hawija