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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2005, 18:48 GMT
Bush battles for US hearts and minds
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

By going into unprecedented detail on efforts to rebuild Iraq's economy, US President George W Bush painted a very different picture than the one most Americans are seeing on their televisions.

President Bush
Mr Bush set out what he believes is the economic progress being made in Iraq

Under pressure to convince the public that a coherent plan exists and is working, Mr Bush cited examples of how - behind the images of destruction - "quiet steady progress" is having a "real, important and unmistakeable" effect on the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Acknowledging that reconstruction had progressed "in fits and starts", the president blamed this partly on a legacy of dictatorship which had neglected the country's infrastructure and partly on insurgent attacks.

As in his speech last week about Iraq's security situation, he peppered the address with specifics like the reopening of schools and hospitals in Najaf and Mosul, cities which had seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

It was the continuation of a concerted campaign to convince the American people that when it comes to Iraq, the glass is half full, not half empty.

But there is plenty of evidence to argue both sides.

'Reconstruction gap'

A report to Congress last month found that while the US is making progress in rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure, its efforts are hampered by violence and will fall short of original goals.

What you do is so much louder than what you say. What is happening on the ground is countering what the president is trying to say
Professor David Gergen
Harvard University

The report expressed growing concern over a "reconstruction gap" in the country - despite the $30bn (17bn) Washington set aside to rebuild key parts of infrastructure, such as schools and oil pipelines.

Opposition Democrats say that while the administration cites the numbers of new schools built, roads paved and businesses created, basic needs - like jobs, essential services and health care - remain unmet.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said: "Just because [the president] says thing are improving there, doesn't make it so.

"The president says the security situation on the ground is better. It is not. More of the same in Iraq is not making us safer."

Mr Bush said the Americans need to deliver "visible progress" to people on the ground in Iraq.

But this week's state department reconstruction update for Iraq reported that electricity output remains below pre-war levels.

Crude oil production, which some believed would largely pay for reconstruction efforts, is also below the period in which Saddam was still in power.

Democratic rift

The speech also comes at a time when - in Washington at least - as many questions on Iraq are being asked of the Democrats, as of the administration.

Operation Steel Curtain in Anbar province
There are 160,000 US troops in Iraq

Strong anti-war comments in recent days by leading Democrats have reopened a rift in the party over Iraq.

Some lawmakers are warning that rhetorical blasts like that of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean could harm efforts to win control of Congress next year .

In an interview with WOIA radio in San Antonio, Texas, Dean said that the "idea that we're going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong," and that the conflict resembled the protracted Vietnam war.

Mr Bush highlighted his opponents' divisions on what to do next by quoting Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman who expressed support for his stay-the-course strategy in Iraq after travelling to see reconstruction efforts first hand.

Price worth paying

The Council on Foreign Relations speech was delivered at 1045 local time, and Mr Bush broke with the think-tank's tradition and took no questions from the assembled scholars, policymakers and journalists.

Professor David Gergen, of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, says that to have a greater impact on the US public, the president should hold a prime time evening news conference and take questions.

But he also warned: "What you do is so much louder than what you say. What is happening on the ground is countering what the president is trying to say."

Next week - days before the Iraqi general election - Mr Bush will turn to the political progress in Iraq for the third tranche of his campaign.

By indicating how the US is moving towards a point where it can declare a victory in Iraq, and withdraw, he aims to convince Americans the mounting human, political and economic costs of the mission are a price worth paying.

Many anticipate the elections will see an upsurge of violence from insurgents.

Yet the more difficult problem for the US might arise should a new Iraqi government ask US troops to leave. Then the battle for the hearts and minds of the US public would be infinitely more complex.

President Bush on his strategy for 'victory in Iraq'

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