CLEVELAND - President Bush on Monday cited success in stabilizing an insurgent stronghold in northern Iraq, saying he has "confidence in our strategy" and critics should look beyond the images of violence to see clear signs of progress.
Bush tried a new tactic to boost sagging support for the war, relating to his audience in Cleveland a lengthy story about a campaign to rid the northern city of Tal Afar of terrorism against civilians. Success there "gives reason for hope for a free Iraq," he said.
Bush described how the insurgents who have been using murder and intimidation to run roughshod over the city now have been killed or captured by Iraqi forces and coalition troops working together.
The president's detailed description of the campaign -- and the eventual success story -- was meant to underscore another point the White House is trying to make: evidence of progress is more difficult than daily bombings and deaths to capture in media sound bites.
"In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," Bush told the City Club of Cleveland. "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."
Bush devoted a considerable amount of his appearance to taking questions from the audience in this Democratic leaning city. Right off the bat, he was challenged on his Christian viewpoint and whether he sees terrorism as a sign of the Apocalypse (he said he never thought of it that way) and how he restores confidence in U.S. leadership after the reasons he gave for going to war with Iraq later proved false.
"Like you, I mean, I asked that very same question: Where'd we go wrong on intelligence?" Bush said. He said he is working to improve intelligence gathering because "the credibility of our country is essential."
But Bush also got his share of softballs, too -- he was invited back to for the Cleveland Hungarian Revolution 50th Anniversary and was complimented on his vision for a nuclear treaty with India and for his "very enlightening" comments about Iraq.
Bush said that Tal Afar, a city of more than 200,000 near the Syrian border, was a strategic location for al-Qaida to recruit terrorists to come into the country and fight legitimate government.
U.S. forces had gone into Tal Afar in September 2004 to clean out insurgent strongholds, but the insurgents returned after the Americans left. U.S. commanders said the insurgents were murdering and torturing civilians and kidnapping youth and turning them into terrorists.
The collapse of the first Tal Afar effort was an example of a broader problem the U.S. military has had throughout the three years in Iraq: They would "clean out" a town or city, then leave, and then the insurgents would return because the Iraqis were unable to hold the city or town on their own. Now, the U.S. presence in such areas is stronger and Iraqi forces have a better chance to hold the area.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was sent back in a year after the first Tal Afar campaign, along with some Iraqi soldiers, to clean it out again and were apparently more successful.
"The strategy that worked so well in Tal Afar did not emerge overnight," Bush said. "It took time to understand and adjust to the brutality of the enemy in Iraq.
"I wish I could tell you that the progress made in Tal Afar is the same in every part of Iraq. It is not," he said.
Yet, Bush said, "The example of Tal Afar gives me confidence in our strategy."
Bush was marking this week's third anniversary of the war by making speeches aimed at boosting support for his mission in Iraq, which has drawn increasing public skepticism at home, according to various polls.
More than three-fourths of the public thinks it's likely that Iraq is headed toward civil war, an AP-Ipsos poll taken in early March found. And two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. is losing ground in preventing civil war in Iraq, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken in the same period. That's up from 48 percent in January.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Joe Biden, the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blamed "the dangerous incompetence of this administration" for an "increasingly dismal" outcome, thus far, in Iraq.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is running for a Senate seat against GOP incumbent Mike DeWine, said, "I hear very little support (for the Iraq war) in my travels in every region -- conservative regions, more progressive regions of this state, everywhere."