President defends Iraq policies

By Jennifer Loven The Associated Press

WHEELING, W.Va. – Whether he’s before a friendly West Virginia audience, a Cleveland club proud of its interrogation skills or a White House news conference, President Bush is drawing on his plainspoken manner in freewheeling venues to defend his Iraq strategy.

Alternately serious and joking, charming and disarming in this war anniversary week, Bush is trying to counter election-year critics and reverse an approval ratings slide.

In Wheeling on yesterday, the fifth day in a row Bush devoted his remarks to Iraq, the president bantered with the locals, his shoulders bouncing up and down as they do when he’s pleased with his own jokes. Then he brought down the house with his trademark I-won’t-back-down pledge.

“Let me put it to you this way: If I didn’t think we’d succeed, I’d pull our troops out,” Bush said. More than 2,000 supporters – including many active-duty military and their families – leapt from their seats and filled the gilded Capitol Music Hall with wild applause.

“I cannot look mothers and dads in the eye, I can’t ask this good Marine to go into harm’s way if I didn’t believe, one, we’re going to succeed, and, two, it’s necessary for the security of the United States,” Bush said.

Beginning with a speech last Monday in Washington. and with more planned to come, the president wants to convince Americans not only that there is reason for optimism about Iraq’s future but that the situation now is better than the daily reports of strife make it appear.

With national polls showing he has a tough hill to climb – and the upcoming midterm congressional elections making Republicans nervous – Bush laces his remarks with nods to both Americans’ worries and the grim realities on the ground in Iraq.