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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 14:01 GMT
Bush presidency pivots on Iraq's fate
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

Few in Washington dispute that President George W Bush's term in office will be defined by the war in Iraq.

US soldier greets Iraqi boys
President Bush wants a more positive image of the US in Iraq

It has already cost the lives of more than 2,000 US troops. In financial terms, the bill for the US taxpayer stands at more than $200bn (110bn).

The Iraq war has also cost the president political support. His job approval rating stands now at around 40% - six points down from when he first took office in 2001.

There is some evidence that the slump has bottomed out. The president's approval ratings have gone up a few percentage points in the past month.

But it is not enough of a recovery for him to think that the worst is over.

The stakes are also high because this administration's foreign policy has been built on the premise of spreading democracy and freedom.

Iraq - so the argument goes - will be a beacon for democracy for the entire Middle East. If democracy fails to take root in Iraq, the whole ambition crumbles.

So it is no wonder the president is expending so much time and energy on justifying the war and underscoring the need for "complete victory" to the American people.

Make or break?

The president wants these elections to provide another milestone on the road to progress.

A strong turnout and greater participation by the Sunni Arab minority is what his advisors are looking for.

Iraqi soldier watches over protest by Shias
Iraqi security forces have yet to show they can replace US soldiers

That in itself shows that ambitions are modest. This election will not provide the final judgment on the president's success or failure.

Rather like the first round of elections and the vote on the constitution, it will be used as a signpost to show the American people whether the situation is improving.

President Bush has reiterated time and again - using the example of America - that democracies are not created overnight.

But in his own words he believes these elections are crucial to the construction of a nation that can support, sustain and defend itself.

Complete victory

So these elections will not provide the "complete victory" that President Bush has promised.

That term has deliberately not been precisely defined.

President Bush
President Bush's approval ratings have taken a beating over Iraq

Instead, the president has set a broad and somewhat vague goal.

Victory, he says, will come when the terrorists and Saddam loyalists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy.

Even he admits that the violence will continue for years ahead.

But these elections can at least show positive momentum to give the American public the impression that "complete victory" can be achieved in the longer term.

Exit strategy

The president still refuses to set a timetable for withdrawal. That, he says, would send entirely the wrong signal to the terrorists.

But he knows that the American public's patience is limited.

If these elections are genuinely going to provide a sign of progress, then there will have to be proof that the Iraqis are becoming less reliant on American military might.

Most Republicans hope that some troops can be withdrawn before the US mid-term elections in 2006. But ultimately that decision is in the Iraqis' hands.

They now have to prove that they can create peace and stability. Only they can now salvage this president's reputation.




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