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Iraq taking heavy toll on Bush five months before election
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President George Bush greets military personnel after his speech on the future of Iraq at the U.S. Army War College. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Washington, D.C. — (AP) - Five months before the election, President Bush confronts a grim picture in Iraq of rising casualties, growing violence, skittish allies and Arab anger.

To the administration's dismay, the setbacks have drowned out news of an improving economy at home and have pushed Iraq to the top of Americans' concerns. Those anxieties have helped drive down Bush's approval ratings to the lowest point of his presidency and stirred deep doubts about his handling of Iraq.

The numbers add up to serious political problems for a president seeking a second term.

"The air is coming out of the balloon right now," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "The support they had is eroding. They have to do something to stop the leak."

Early on in the conflict in Iraq, I think people placed their faith in the president - that this was the right thing to do. Rank-and-file voters are starting to question the soundness of this policy. I think people are getting nervous that there is not an end date.
- Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, Brookings Institution

On the defensive, Bush delivered a prime-time television address Monday night to try to persuade the country that he has a clear strategy to cut through the chaos and produce a democratic and peaceful Iraq. But even as Bush outlined his plan, the White House was unable to say what price America would have to pay in lives or money in Iraq or how long U.S. troops would have to remain there.

Bush offered nothing new in his speech - he reiterated his determination to see a new democratic government installed in Iraq even if it means sending more U.S. troops beyond the 138,000 already there.

Words alone have not been enough to convince the world about Bush's strategy.

"This is really going to be determined by events in Iraq," said Emory University politics professor Merle Black. "Obviously they're not in his control. You can't talk your way out of what's going on in Iraq."

Nearly 800 Americans have died since the United States went to war on the premise that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that posed a dire threat to America and the rest of the world. More than a year of searching has failed to turn up any sign of the suspected weapons.

Even among Republican allies - and from U.S. military circles - there is criticism of Bush's policies.

Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, faulted Bush for having failed to offer solid plans for Iraq's future. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said Bush was running Iraq policy in a vacuum. "To essentially hold himself hostage to two or three key advisers and never reach beyond that is very dangerous for a president," Hagel said.

Bush's search for more allies in Iraq - and more troops and money - has produced meager results.

"There has been little compromise coming out of the administration and the Europeans typically are disappointed because they would like to hear more of an expression of 'mistakes were made,"' said James M. Goldgeier, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst who served at the State Department and National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Three countries, Spain, the Dominican Republic and Honduras, have pulled their forces out. On Monday, the United States and Britain offered a U.N. resolution urging countries to volunteer soldiers for a U.S.-led international force and endorse the June 30 handover of political power to an interim Iraqi government.

"Right now there's not a lot of confidence that they can secure the environment for an entity to take over and successfully exert authority," Goldgeier said.

In the year since Bush declared an end to major combat, the news from Iraq has grown steadily worse with unabated violence and - most recently - evidence of Iraqi prisoner abuses by U.S. troops. Pictures of GIs threatening and humiliating detainees have outraged the Arab world, giving ammunition to those who denounce U.S. behavior.

"Early on in the conflict in Iraq, I think people placed their faith in the president - that this was the right thing to do," said Tenpas, the Brookings analyst. "Rank-and-file voters are starting to question the soundness of this policy. I think people are getting nervous that there is not an end date."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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