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Wednesday, March 26

Bush rallies military, projects confidence in victory against Iraq

By Richard Benedetto | GNS

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - President Bush used a visit Wednesday to the U.S. military's nerve center here conducting the war on Iraq to rally the troops, thank coalition partners, provide a progress report to the American people and assure Iraqi citizens they soon will be free.

At U.S. Central Command headquarters, the president told several thousand cheering GIs and their families jammed into an airplane hangar that coalition forces are ``making good progress'' in moving toward Baghdad where a fierce climactic battle is expected. But he said the duration of the conflict, now a week old, is still unknown.

"This war is far from over,'' Bush said, "but there will be an end for the Iraqi regime and that day is drawing near.''

Before the speech, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters traveling with the president that Bush would say in his speech that war progress "is ahead of schedule.''

But a cautious Bush scratched that phrase from the speech aboard Air Force One during the flight to MacDill and did not deliver it. An aide said the president "erred on the side of being conservative'' to apparently avoid being pinned down if progress slows.

However, while Bush projected resolute confidence in ultimate victory, he hinted that the stiff Iraqi resistance, the threat of chemical weapons and guerilla tactics employed by Iraqi forces might be triggering shifts in coalition battle plans. And he sought to assure the public that every new obstacle can be overcome and the situation is well in hand.

"Our military is focused and unwavering. We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge,'' Bush said. "We will press on through every hardship. We will overcome every danger. And we will prevail.''

Meanwhile, media reports of increased casualties being taken by coalition forces and what appears to be slower-than-expected progress are causing Americans to reassess their view of who is winning and influencing Bush to temper his optimism.

The USA TODAY-CNN-Gallup Poll underscores that point. A poll taken last Saturday and Sunday found that 84 percent thought the U.S.-led coalition was winning the war. Polling done Monday and Tuesday saw that number drop to 74 percent.

And where 53 percent of those polled over the weekend said the war was going very well, that number by Tuesday was down to 34 percent.

Nonetheless, public support for the war has been constant - 72 percent over the weekend, 71 percent through Tuesday.

Bush's job approval is also steady, 71 percent over the weekend and 69 percent now - numbers within the poll's error margin.

The Monday-Tuesday poll of 1,008 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

While the tone of Bush's speech was cautious, he remained upbeat. He noted as a sign of progress that the invaders had moved more than 200 miles to the north toward Iraq's capital Baghdad in the last three days and that hundreds of square miles of territory were under U.S.-led control.

"Day by day Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq,'' he said. "Day by day the Iraqi people are closer to freedom.''