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Bush to hail prospect of Iraq "strategic victory"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush will acknowledge on Wednesday the Iraq war has been fought at a high cost but will insist a U.S. troop buildup has opened the door to a “major strategic victory” against Islamic militants.

President George W. Bush speaks at the Blount Island Marine Terminal while visiting Jacksonville, Florida, March 18, 2008. REUTERS/Larry Downing

“The successes we are seeing in Iraq are undeniable,” Bush will say in an upbeat assessment of the U.S.-led campaign in a speech marking the fifth anniversary of the war, according to excerpts released on Tuesday.

With less than 11 months left in office and his approval ratings near the lows of his presidency, Bush is trying to shore up support for the unpopular war, which has damaged U.S. credibility abroad and is sure to define his legacy.

Excerpts of Wednesday’s speech at the Pentagon suggested a more triumphant tone than Bush’s recent Iraq addresses, but he still may have a hard time winning the public’s attention.

While the war remains a key issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, polls show the faltering U.S. economy has supplanted Iraq at the top of Americans’ concerns.

Bush will be touting security gains from a troop increase or “surge” that he ordered early last year, as he appeals to Americans for patience in a war entering its sixth year since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around -- it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror,” Bush will say.

Such an assertion, however, could serve as a reminder of Bush’s premature declaration in May 2003 that “major combat operations” in Iraq were over as he stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” The event has been roundly mocked by war critics.

DISTRACTED FROM AFGHANISTAN?

Bush -- a Republican who had huge public support after the attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants on September 11, 2001 -- has long described Iraq as a central front in the battle against Islamic extremists.

But his Democratic critics say his administration has been distracted from what they see as the more important struggle in Afghanistan.

Bush will hail the increased cooperation of Iraqi Sunnis in the fight against al Qaeda as the “first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network.”

A number of Sunni tribal chiefs have joined against al Qaeda but progress remains slow in bridging the sectarian divide at the national level.

“War critics can no longer credibly argue that we are losing in Iraq,” Bush will say.

But he will also temper his words for an American public recently more preoccupied with a housing market meltdown, record gas prices and the threat of recession.

“No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure, but those costs are necessary,” Bush will say.

House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, part of a Democratic leadership that has failed to get Bush to provide a troop withdrawal timetable, said the administration had made “egregious misjudgments throughout this war.”

The war has cost the United States $500 billion. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and millions displaced.

Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, as well as 175 British troops and 134 from other countries.

Violence across Iraq has dropped 60 percent since 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed in June. But a recent spate of attacks shows that Iraq is far from safe.

Bush’s speech will be his second in the lead-up to the next status report that Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will give to Congress in early April.

Bush is expected to reiterate that any decision on bringing more troops home would depend on recommendations from commanders on the ground.

The U.S. military is on track to complete the withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by July, leaving about 140,000 in Iraq, as ordered by Bush in September.

Editing by John O’Callaghan

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