Bush's bid to shape the Iraq story

A series of speeches aims to revive support for war effort as difficult handover nears - and as president's ratings sag in US.

The White House appears to be trying to regain control of the US public discourse about Iraq prior to a month when President Bush's role as a world leader may be under scrutiny as never before.

This June Mr. Bush has a full menu of international events, from D-Day commemorations in France to a meeting of industrialized nations in Georgia and a NATO summit in Turkey. At the end of the month, Bush faces perhaps the biggest challenge of all: the June 30 deadline to hand limited sovereignty back to Iraqis.

For reasons of politics and policy the administration is likely to try to look forceful and in charge as Bush proceeds through these events. That's a tough task after weeks in which bad news from the Middle East has dominated headlines. After all, speeches alone won't curb the Iraqi insurgency.

In Iraq "it's not clear they'll fail, and it's not clear they'll succeed," says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and former National Security Council staffer. "They're captive of events on the ground."

That Bush needed to do something to try to bolster his position at home seems clear. According to a number of polls support for US policies in Iraq has been on a steady decline, due to the rise of US casualties and furor over abuse of Iraqi detainees.

In a just-released Washington Post poll only 40 percent of respondents gave Bush positive marks for his handling of Iraq. That's the lowest such rating since the beginning of the war last March.

In the same poll, 50 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the way the president was handling his job overall. That's a dangerous rating for an incumbent facing an election in five months - especially in the context of a relatively positive economy.

Meanwhile, in Washington the opinion of many in what might be called the policy elite class is that the situation in Iraq is grim and may get worse. Speakers at a Brookings Institution seminar on Iraq's future Monday were almost uniformly pessimistic. "What does the US do now? None of us really knows anymore," said Brookings senior fellow Kenneth Pollack.

To try to counter this drumbeat Bush took to the airwaves Monday night in an attempt to speak directly to the US people. In essence, Bush probably wanted to reiterate to Americans that the administration does indeed have a plan for Iraq - and that he intends to see it through even if that entails sending more US troops.

Bush vowed to destroy the Abu Ghraib prison, which has become a symbol of US abuses as well as a reminder of the Saddam Hussein regime. He laid out five points of preexisting US policy meant to move Iraq to democracy and freedom: transfer of authority to an interim government on June 30; continued help in establishing security; the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure; the encouragement of more international support; and a national Iraqi election next January.

Bush also said that in his view Iraq remains "the central front in the war on terror."

In Iraq itself some who heard of the speech were generally unimpressed. In particular, they did not see the destruction of Abu Ghraib as a symbolic move that would have meaning to their countrymen. "We don't want the Americans to use it as part of the Bush media campaign," says Abu Tareq, a lean, white-haired former high-ranking Iraqi Army officer interviewed in Baghdad.

Husham Wahid, a religious man from the Adhamiyah neighborhood who says he was detained in the prison for three months earlier this year, agrees with this sentiment. "Abu Ghraib is a symbol," he says. "It should not be destroyed."

In America the speech was just a beginning. Bush plans a series throughout the month to emphasize his points and remind Americans why the US went into Iraq in the first place.

The next 30 days may well be a crucial period in determining voter perceptions of Bush as a world leader. He will attend solemn ceremonies in Europe on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, visiting both Italy and France.

After coming home for the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., he'll go to Turkey for a NATO summit at which the US hopes to win greater involvement in the Iraq effort on the part of its allies.

Foreign stops will expose Bush to the prospect of antiwar protests, as well as possible policy gains. If protests are large, many Americans might be surprised, says Steven Kull, director of the program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. A March poll taken by his group found that only 41 percent of respondents knew that majority opinion in most other countries is against the US presence in Iraq.

In Bush's European stops, "If the story becomes the degree of criticism of US actions, that may come as news to people [in the US]," says Mr. Kull.

Orly Halpern contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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