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Last Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006, 18:39 GMT
Bush focuses on Iraq improvements
US President George W Bush
Mr Bush is defending the Iraq invasion amid falling support
US President George W Bush has marked the third anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq with an upbeat assessment of the country's prospects.

Iraqis in some areas still faced "savage" acts of violence, Mr Bush said, but he insisted that insurgents were being defeated in many areas.

"The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision," Mr Bush told an audience in Cleveland, Ohio.

In Iraq there was sporadic violence and fresh delays over forming a government.

Three years ago bombs started falling on Baghdad at the start of a campaign that led to the fall and eventual capture of former President Saddam Hussein.

In his speech on Monday, Mr Bush spoke at length about the city of Tal Afar, in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, which he said had been effectively liberated from Al-Qaeda control.

He listed a litany of horrors visited on the city as insurgents took control during 2003 and 2004, but pointed to improvements since a joint Iraqi-US operation to root out insurgents during 2005.

Bush defiant

Mr Bush's speech came as he faced new evidence of falling domestic support for the continuing war in Iraq.

Newsweek's regular poll of US views on President Bush's handling of Iraq.

Opinion polls in the US have continued to indicate weakening support for the president on Iraq , with a Newsweek survey last Friday suggesting 65% now disapproved of his policy.

But the president insisted that the US would not pull troops out of Iraq before achieving stability.

"The US will not abandon Iraq. We will leave Iraq, but when we do it will be from a position of strength, not weakness," he said.

"Americans have never retreated in the face of thugs and assassins and we will not begin now."

Fresh violence

As Iraqis marked the three-year anniversary there were at least two fatal roadside bombings.

One killed at least four security guards near the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad. The other killed two police commandos and two other people in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Karrada.

At least another nine bodies were also found, in the capital and elsewhere, most showing signs of torture and believed to be victims of sectarian attacks.

The continuing violence prompted former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to say at the weekend that Iraq was in the grip of civil war - a view played down by the US and UK.

COST OF WAR
Iraqi civilians killed: 32,600-35,700 on 1 March. Police: 1,900. Source: Iraq Body Count campaign group
US soldiers killed: More than 2,300
Other armed forces killed: 205 (103 of whom British)
US forces now in Iraq: 138,000 (UK: 7,800)
Iraqi forces: 235,000 Source: UK defence ministry
Oil production: 1.8m barrels a day. Pre-war: 2.5m
Iraq funding needed to 2007: $55bn (UN+US estimates). Pledged: $38bn
Cost of war to US taxpayer: $248bn. Source: National Priorities Project based on congressional appropriations

A key potential flashpoint on Monday was Karbala, 110km (68 miles) south-west of Baghdad, where hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims have gathered.

They are commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the 7th century, which confirmed the Sunni-Shia schism.

Shia pilgrims have been shot at around Karbala over the past week, with about a dozen deaths reported.

Political parties also remain deadlocked over the formation of a new government following December's parliamentary elections.

Mr Bush urged a quick resolution to the impasse, calling on Iraqi leaders to form a government of national unity.

They have suspended negotiations for another week but on Sunday did agree on a security council to tackle key issues while talks continue.

A major disagreement is over the Shia majority's choice of Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister.

Mr Jaafari on Monday expressed confidence that a government would be found to solve Iraq's problems.

"The road ahead will be tough but the Iraqi people have demonstrated their bravery, determination and resolve," he wrote in the Washington Post.

"The world should not falter at such a crucial stage in history."


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