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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 02:42 GMT 03:42 UK
Analysis: Bush stages fightback

By Nick Childs
BBC Pentagon Correspondent

US troops in Iraq guard the burning wreckage of a car destroyed in a rocket attack
Mr Bush set out his plans for Iraq in much detail
After weeks of seemingly unremitting bad news from Iraq, President Bush needs to convince audiences in the United States, Iraq, and the international community that he still sees a clear way ahead, and one that all those constituencies can support.

One speech alone won't do that.

His remarks at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania were the start of a more prolonged counter-offensive.

But George Bush clearly needed to do something to reverse the slide in support both for his handling of the Iraq mission and the mission itself.

Steps to transition

So Mr Bush set out with more detail than we've heard before the "five steps" for Iraqi transition and he and his advisers see them, and how the political process will unfold.

He insisted that what will be handed over on June 30th will be "full sovereignty".

Five-point plan
Hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government
Help establish the stability and security in Iraq that democracy requires
Continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure
Encourage more international support
Move toward free, national elections that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people.
Some US officials had flirted with terms like "limited sovereignty". But those have clearly been ditched.

Whether this conversion will be enough to convince the sceptics in the UN Security Council who the Bush administration needs to support a new UN resolution isn't clear, let alone whether this is a formula that will encourage more countries to join the US-led coalition, as Washington hopes.

One can still expect some tough debate there.

And, in a sobering reference to the continuing security situation, Mr Bush said there was likely to be more violence both before and after the transfer of sovereignty.

With that in mind, he declared that the current force level of 138,000 troops would remain for as long as necessary, and that if more troops were needed, he would send them.

They would, even after the transition, remain under US command, he insisted, but equally the United States was not interested in maintaining an occupation.

As he put it, he'd sent them there to make Iraqis free, not to make them American.

Unlikely to convince critics

If there was any expectation that Mr Bush would tone down his rhetoric about a broader vision of a democratic and stable Iraq as a central pillar of a more stable Middle East, Mr Bush's actual words, if anything reinforced that rationale.

The quicker the US is taken out of the equation the better. The US has lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people with its heavy handedness
Wajid Ali, UK

Perhaps he felt he had to, given that recent opinion polls have suggested a majority of Americans now question whether the Iraq war was worth it.

Iraq, Mr Bush underscored, is central to the war on terrorism, it was to make the United States a safer place, and America and the world would be safer "when all Middle Eastern peoples are finally allowed to live and think and work and worship as free men and women".

One important symbolic announcement from the President was the proposal to demolish Abu Ghraib prison.

But the critics are likely to argue that that is too little, too late.

And while some supporters and waverers at home might feel reassured by this speech, some of the most trenchant critics - including, most recently, a respected former US Middle East commander, General Anthony Zinni - are likely to say that it wasn't a lack of clarity in the plan that was the problem, it's the plan itself.

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