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Bush Acknowledges Faulty Iraq War Intelligence

President Bush has completed a concerted public relations campaign aimed at rebuilding public support for the Iraq war. At the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning, the president delivered his fourth major speech on the topic in the past two weeks.

This final speech came on the eve of long-planned elections in which Iraqis will vote for candidates to fill seats in the nation's new parliament. The voting will lead to weeks of negotiations setting up a permanent governing body to replace the interim government, which has been in place since January of this year.

The president focused on those elections, which he has said will mark a turning point not just for Iraq but for the entire Middle East. He also accepted responsibility for faulty intelligence leading up to the war. "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," he said. Still, he said the decision to remove former Iraq leader Saddam Hussein was the right one.

"We are in Iraq today because our goal has always been more than the removal of brutal dictator," Bush said. "It is to leave a free and democratic Iraq in his place."

Earlier speeches in this series have also had distinct themes. The first, on Nov. 30, took place before an audience of cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. That speech was designed to directly address growing criticism of the war.

A CNN/USA Today poll released that morning showed that 55 percent of those questioned did not think President Bush had a plan that would achieve victory in Iraq. Other polls showed similar doubts.

That day, President Bush spoke from a stage bedecked with signs that read "Plan for Victory." Before the speech, the White House also released what it called a newly de-classified 35-page document titled "National Strategy for Victory." The president described progress being made in training Iraqi security forces. He also went after administration critics who have been pressing for a timeline for troops to come home.

"Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies -- that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends," the president said. "To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander-in-chief."

The speech did not offer much new in terms of strategy. Most of what the president said had been heard in some form before. But President Bush did acknowledge that some things might have been done more effectively. He offered the example of how Iraqi police are trained, noting that early on they spent too much time in classrooms listening to lectures. "This did not adequately prepare the fight they would face. And so we changed the way the Iraqi police are trained."

Critics of varying political persuasions have said, however, that such admissions by the president are minor concessions, given the major mistakes they say have been made in launching and prosecuting the war.

Speech No. 2 came a week later, before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. The theme this time was the progress being made in rebuilding Iraq. The White House has long complained that news coverage focuses on violence and death while ignoring many positive stories across Iraq.

In this speech, President Bush again tried candor in addressing the difficulty of the job. On the situation in the city of Najaf, the president described a reconstruction effort marked by "fits and starts since liberation -- it's been uneven." Even so, the primary emphasis was on all that the president said had been achieved.

Speech No. 3 came just this week, in Philadelphia. The president used that city's standing as the birthplace of American democracy to promote the creation of a democracy in Iraq. Neither was easy, the president said. The highlight in that speech was the fact that President Bush actually took questions from an audience -- at the World Affairs Council -- that had not been screened.

In response to one of those questions, the president acknowledged for the first time that as many as 30,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since the war began. The president even seemed to have some of the old "Bush swagger" that has been missing in recent months.

The question now is whether this push to explain the mission works. Initial polls show the president has stopped his descent in the polls and begun to bounce back. But the same polls shows persistent doubts on the part of the public when comes to the situation in Iraq. That's why this week's elections in Iraq may prove at least as important in selling the war as they are to winning the war itself.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.