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June 19, 2005, Sunday METRO FINAL EDITION
SECTION: MAIN NEWS; Pg. A1
LENGTH: 990 words
HEADLINE: Bush confronts doubts on Iraq As demands for an exit strategy grow, he plans a PR counteroffensive.
BYLINE: Rob Hotakainen Bee Washington Bureau
Faced with a rising death toll in Iraq and eroding public support for the war, President Bush is planning a summer offensive aimed at highlighting progress against the Iraqi insurgency and warding off demands to set an exit strategy.
Bush has summoned Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to Washington on Friday to tout the Mideast country's political gains, and on June 28 he will mark the one-year anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq with a major speech on the region.
Bush restated his resolve to prevail in Iraq during his radio address Saturday morning, saying the U.S. "will settle for nothing less than victory."
"The terrorists know they cannot defeat our troops," Bush said. "So they seek to weaken our nation's resolve. ... Their goal is to get us to leave before Iraqis have had a chance to show the region what a government that is elected and truly accountable to its citizens can do for its people."
Acknowledging that success "will not be achieved overnight," the president nevertheless vowed that Iraqis eventually will establish a stable government, allowing U.S. troops to return home.
Some members of Congress are pushing for more than that. In a sign of growing unease, resolutions were introduced in both the House and Senate last week that call on Bush to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The resolutions, which are opposed by the White House, came after a new Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans think it's time for the U.S. to withdraw all or some of its troops.
"There's a growing conviction that the time has come to get out of Iraq," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Bush's approval ratings on Iraq have been below the 50 percent mark for most of the past 18 months. But his 37 percent approval in the latest New York Times-CBS poll matches the low point since the war's start more than two years ago. In the same poll, 60 percent said the U.S. effort in Iraq was going badly, up from 47 percent in February.
Earlier polls have pointed to similar results. A Washington Post-ABC poll in early June found that nearly 60 percent of Americans have concluded that the war was not worth fighting.
Buoyed by the president's troubles, Democrats staged a hearing on the so-called "Downing Street memo" on Thursday, calling attention to a British document that lends support to the idea that Bush decided on war in the summer of 2002, long before acknowledging so to the public.
The White House has denied the allegations, saying the president's subsequent decision to seek support from the United Nations proves that there was no White House scheme.
Democrats said they hoped their stepped-up attacks would persuade Americans to reconsider the continued advisability of the war.
"We are not going away," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., of the war critics.
On the same day, a group of 41 House members announced the creation of the "Out-of-Iraq Congressional Caucus."
"We will provide leadership for the American public who has been waiting too long for our collective voices against the war," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., one of the group's leaders.
Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who voted for the war, sponsored the House resolution, saying it was time to launch the debate on a timetable for withdrawal after the deaths of more than 1,700 Americans. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who voted against the war, sponsored the Senate resolution, arguing it was necessary to "restore confidence at home and abroad that there is an end date in mind."
Until last week, Jones was perhaps most well known for leading the campaign to rename French fries as "freedom fries" on Capitol Hill to protest France's opposition to the war. His resolution calls on Bush to announce a plan for the withdrawal of troops by the end of the year and to begin the exit by Oct. 1, 2006. It was co-sponsored by another Republican, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and two Democrats, Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who ran unsuccessfully for his party's 2004 presidential nomination.
"To have Walter Jones teaming up with Dennis Kucinich to dictate military policy is a joke - it's absurd," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., an ally of the president. He said he was "troubled by the speed of progress" in Iraq but added: "On the other hand, the answer is not to turn the country back over to (Saddam Hussein's) Baathists."
Coleman, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he's hopeful that U.S. troops will be able turn over more security duties to Iraqi police and military units by the middle of next year.
Bush's standing on Iraq has been hurt by the military's inability to slow attacks by insurgents in Iraq and by his overwhelming focus since his re-election on selling his plan for overhauling Social Security.
White House officials said that in coming days he will be devoting more time to the Iraq issue.
"The president is going to spend more time focusing, in his public appearances, on the two big priorities that are on the minds of the American people," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
"Those are winning the war on terrorism, of which Iraq is central, and economic security.
"The stakes are very high in Iraq," he said. "It would be absolutely the wrong message to send to set some sort of artificial timetable."
Despite the rising pitch of anti-war sentiment by some Democrats, others remain wary of pushing Bush too hard on an exit strategy.
Democratic leaders in Congress, for example, were conspicuously absent from Thursday's hearing on the "Downing Street memo."
Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., who voted against the war, said he sees "growing outrage for President Bush's mismanagement of the war" but that he opposes "setting an artificial deadline before Iraq is stable."
Kevin Diaz and Lawrence M. O'Rourke of The Bee's Washington bureau contributed to this story.
GRAPHIC: Associated Press / Charles Dharapak President Bush plans to showcase the visit of Iraq's prime minister as the one-year anniversary nears of the handover of power to an interim regime.