Cleveland — Three years after the United States launched the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, President Bush said Monday the overhauled strategy of clearing insurgents from individual cities and using Iraqi and U.S. forces to rebuild was succeeding.
As an example, Bush cited the city of Tal Afar, which U.S. forces abandoned in the autumn of 2004 after successfully battling insurgents, only to see the fighters return after two months. But with renewed military effort, followed by an effort to rebuild civic structures and hold elections, the insurgents have become "marginalized," Bush said.
"The strategy is working," the president said.
The speech was the second of at least three that Bush is delivering to mark the anniversary of the start of the war. Each is intended to draw attention to one aspect of the conflict that, according to the administration, demonstrates the United States is meeting its goals there - daily examples of chaos and death notwithstanding.
Facing polls that increasingly indicate Americans are turning away from their earlier support for the invasion and war, Bush acknowledged that the images of bombings, executions and other attacks on Iraqi civilians were horrific.
"Nobody likes beheadings," the president said. And he said the signs of progress - children at play, shops reopening - were "not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news." They are not as dramatic, he said, as a roadside bomb or the destruction of a mosque.
"In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," he said.
But with the new control over Tal Afar and other cities, "most of the country has remained relatively peaceful," Bush said, referring to areas outside the most populous - and violent - center of the nation.
The president's audience, gathered at midday at a downtown hotel, was the City Club of Cleveland, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1912. Audience members responded with only occasional displays of enthusiasm, interrupting his speech with applause for the first time nearly 28 minutes after he began speaking, when Bush said "the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision."
The president spoke for 30 minutes, then answered questions for nearly an hour. For a president whose public appearances have often been choreographed, the questions proved penetrating and critical.
The first was whether Bush agreed with "prophetic Christians" who see the war in Iraq as an early sign of the apocalypse. The president stammered, laughed nervously and said: "First I'd heard of that."
To a question about false premises for going to war - that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, that it was buying materials for nuclear weapons and that it was becoming a haven for terrorists - Bush replied: "I asked the very same question: Where did we go wrong on intelligence?"
A high school student, asserting that the war was costing $19,600 per household, wondered whether that money could be put to better use as college tuition aid. "We can do more than one thing at a time," Bush replied.
The series of speeches reflect a two-fold White House campaign: To lower expectations and at the same time hold out prospects for success.