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Bush's push to sell war puts hopes on Iraqi troops

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Mar 11 (Reuters) President George W Bush, in his latest push to counter rising opposition to the Iraq war as it nears its third anniversary, today said he believes the country can avoid an all-out civil war because of the increased capability of Iraqi troops.

Bush said in his weekly radio address his aim was to have Iraqi forces patrol more turf than US forces by year-end.

But faced with polls showing the war is increasingly unpopular, he said he understood why many Americans wonder if the Iraq conflict was worth it.

''The security of our country is directly linked to the liberty of the Iraqi people,'' he said. ''This will require more difficult days of fighting and sacrifice, yet I am confident that our strategy will result in victory.'' He spoke a day after the body of kidnapped US peace activist Tom Fox was discovered bearing signs of torture. More than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped since the March 2003 US-led invasion. US military deaths have totaled more than 2,300.

With this month marking the invasion's third anniversary, Bush is planning a series of events to call for patience.

Discontent with the war is a major factor in Bush's slumping approval ratings, which are mired below 40 per cent.

Bush has refused to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. But he said he saw hopeful signs in the response of the Iraqi security forces to sectarian violence following the February 22 bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine.

''The effective performance of the Iraqi security forces during this crisis showed that our hard work to build up and train these forces is paying off,'' Bush said.

MORE RESPONSIBILITY ''In the coming months, we will help prepare more Iraqi battalions to take the lead in battle and Iraqi forces will assume responsibility over more territory,'' he said.

Reprisal attacks following the bombing of the Golden Mosque have killed hundreds.

Speaking to reporters today, Bush said he thought things were calming down, despite many people's fears that an all-out civil war might develop.

''Some have called it a civil war. But it didn't work,'' he said.

Bush said when Iraqi forces take on control of more of the country, US forces will spend more time looking for al Qaeda militants.

''Our goal is to have the Iraqis control more territory than the coalition forces by the end of this year,'' Bush said in the radio address.

Some analysts have questioned how capable Iraqi security forces would be without the aid of US troops, the degree to which they are loyal to the central government and how deeply they have been infiltrated by insurgents.

Bush's remarks to reporters came after he met with military officials about tactics aimed at countering so-called improvised explosive devices. The devices, the deadliest threat posed by Iraqi insurgents, are often planted by insurgents on roads to attack US vehicles.

Bush told reporters he continues to press Syria and Iran to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs and halt the flow of militants through their borders.

''Our call is for those in the neighborhood to allow ...

Iraq to develop a democracy,'' Bush said. ''And that includes our call to Iran, as well as to Syria. We have made our concerns known.'' Reuters OM VP0156

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