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Bush defends Iraq policy, points finger at Iran

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Mar 14 (Reuters) US President George W Bush, launching a drive to counter growing American opposition to the Iraq war, vowed ''we will not lose our nerve'' and accused Iran of helping to foment violence in Iraq.

Stung by low approval ratings dragged down by pessimism over Iraq, Bush delivered the first in a series of speeches to convince Americans he has a strategy for victory, days before the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Bush spoke amid sectarian strife in Iraq that has raised fears of civil war, dampening U.S. hopes for a troop drawdown anytime soon. Bombings in a Baghdad Shi'ite slum killed 52 people on Sunday.

''They're hoping to shake our resolve and make us retreat,'' Bush told a policy group at George Washington University.

''They're not going to succeed.'' But Bush offered no new plan for winning the war.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday put Bush's approval rating at 36 percent, a new low for that poll but similar to his rating in other recent surveys.

The poll, taken Friday through Saturday, showed Bush's approval rating dropped from 38 percent in late February-early March, while his disapproval rating remained steady at 60 percent.

Bush's slumping job performance ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency. Polls show up to two-thirds of Americans disapprove of his handling of Iraq, once among his strongest suits.

Bush insisted there had been progress training Iraqi forces to take over from the U.S. military and praised them for keeping things from spinning out of control after the Feb. 22 bombing of a major Shi'ite mosque. But he acknowledged there was still plenty of work and ''days of struggle'' ahead.

Bush urged Iraq's leaders to ''reach out across religious and sectarian lines and form a unity government'' -- a process that has stalled amid the latest bloodshed.

Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a critic of the Republican administration, said instead of leading a ''public relations blitz'' Bush should bring Iraq's factions together for a summit to avoid a slide into civil war.

While blaming sectarian violence on the ''enemies of freedom'' in Iraq, Bush also pointed the finger at Iran, saying some of the homemade bombs wreaking havoc in Iraq had been traced to its eastern neighbor.

Locked in a test of wills with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Bush said: ''Coalition forces have seized IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and components that were clearly produced in Iran.'' ACCUSING IRAQ The bombs have have taken a heavy toll on U.S. forces as well as Iraqi civilians. There have been more than 2,300 U.S.

military deaths since the 2003 invasion.

Bush said Iran had been responsible for some of the increasing lethality of attacks in Iraq.

''Such actions along with Iran's support for terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons are increasingly isolating Iran,'' he said. Iran has denied meddling in Iraq and says its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.

U.S. officials have previously accused predominantly Shi'ite Iran of giving training and weapons to Shi'ite militias operating in Iraq -- charges rejected by Iran's leaders.

Bush gave no sign of when the 132,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would start coming home.

''We will not lose our nerve,'' he said in the speech to be followed by two more addresses this month and possible more in April. Bush made a similar public relations push in December.

Reuters SK VP0630

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