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White House trying new public relations approach on Iraq

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney are taking part in the administration's effort to spread its message on Iraq.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney are taking part in the administration's effort to spread its message on Iraq.

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Condoleezza Rice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice opened a new White House campaign Wednesday to rebut critics of the Iraq war.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Chicago, Rice restated many of the Bush administration's arguments that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the region and could have supplied weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

"This was an international outlaw who had been allowed to remain too long, and when you let a threat fester you eventually pay a price for it," Rice said. "You either have an option of dealing with it now or dealing with it later, and this president decided to deal with it now."

Though no banned weapons have been found in Iraq since Saddam's ouster in April, Rice said U.S.-led inspectors have found extensive evidence that his government was trying to conceal continued efforts to develop them from U.N. weapons inspectors before the war.

More than 100,000 U.S. troops are now leading the occupation of Iraq, which President Bush now calls the "central front" of the war on terrorism that began with the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Though no evidence links Iraq to those attacks, Rice said Saddam could one day have provided chemical or biological weapons "to mount a future attack beyond the scale of 9/11 -- and that terrible prospect could not be put aside."

The Bush administration has asked Congress for $87 billion for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly for Iraq. That request and ongoing attacks on U.S. troops have spurred increased criticism of the administration's policy.

The White House effort is meant to beat back its critics by focusing on local media to get out its message. The president, vice president and other senior administration officials will carry out this strategy through a series of speeches, interviews and trips around the country and abroad.

"The president appreciates his role not only as commander in chief, but also how important it is to communicate and educate the public about Iraq, the war on terror and provide the context," White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said.

Congressional Republicans close to the White House and elsewhere in Washington have increasingly expressed private concern the Bush administration has not had an aggressive enough communications strategy not on only Iraq, but also on the economy. President poll ratings have slipped in recent weeks.

Vice President Dick Cheney will speak Friday, too, and is "expected to engage a little more in the debate" over whether the United States should have gone to war in Iraq and to talk about Iraq's threat in the context of September 11 as a "watershed," the senior official said.

A large part of this strategy is to employ local media and local stories. Local television interviews are planned for Monday.

Bush will talk about progress in Iraq when he travels to New Hampshire on Thursday. While there, and during other trips, he will to try to make the Iraq war and the larger war on terrorism relevant, likely to highlight contributions of local National Guardsmen or active duty officers.

In addition to progress on Iraq, the president will also continue to talk about the economy, which advisers consider crucial to his re-election effort.

"From here on out in the future, the president will be focused on addressing the two biggest priorities: fighting the war on terror and economic recovery," Bartlett said.

The White House focus on local media is reminiscent of a strategy employed by President Clinton to try to go around the Washington press corps.

"The fact is, people still get most of their news from their local papers," said Bartlett, who said the White House plans to give equal attention to national media as well.

The president hinted at the strategy Monday, telling reporters, "Sometimes it's hard to tell it when you listen to the filter. We're making good progress."

-- CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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