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Iraq Transition

Bush plans 'major speech' on Iraq, terrorism

Democrats say they want to hear more than 'stay the course'

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A man in Kirkuk reads a copy of Iraq's draft constitution.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush will deliver a "major speech" Thursday on the progress of the war in Iraq and the broader conflict against terrorism, the White House said Wednesday.

Bush will deliver his remarks at 10:10 a.m. at a National Endowment for Democracy event in Washington.

Bush met with top military advisers Wednesday at the White House, telling reporters afterward that U.S. and Iraqi troops are on the offensive against insurgents who want to disrupt Iraq's October 15 vote on a new constitution.

He said about 3,000 Iraqi troops had done "a fine job" in recent combat alongside American units in western Iraq.

"Over 30 percent of the Iraqi troops are in the lead on these offensive operations. We've got troops embedded with them, and that's an important part of the training mission," he said.

Bush to give greater detail

White House press secretary Scott McClellan characterized Bush's planned remarks Thursday morning as a "major speech" that will address the connection between Iraq and the broader war against the al Qaeda terrorist network "in greater detail than he has before."

"He will talk about how [al Qaeda] is a group of people that have a very clear strategy for driving us out of the Middle East, for creating a safe haven in the Middle East -- a safe haven from which they can plan and plot attacks on the rest of the civilized world and a safe haven from which they can seek to overthrow moderate governments in the Middle East," McClellan said.

McClellan said the address "is not a speech on Iraq," but Bush "will talk about Iraq in the context of the broader war on terrorism."

Bush has tried repeatedly to link Iraq to the anti-terror campaign launched after al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Though the 9/11 commission found no operational relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq before the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, critics say the insurgency against U.S. troops that followed Saddam's overthrow has drawn terrorists into Iraq to fight Americans.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have carried out a number of operations in western Iraq in recent weeks aimed at disrupting insurgent control in the region and targeting al Qaeda in Iraq, the group led by wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

One recent raid resulted in the terror group's No. 2 operative being killed, U.S. officials have said.

Polls show support waning

Polls have found U.S. public support for the Iraq war waning since spring, despite speeches by the president in June and September that White House aides hoped would reverse the trend.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in late September found that 59 percent of people surveyed considered the 2003 invasion a mistake, 63 percent said they wanted to see some or all U.S. troops withdrawn, and only 32 percent approved of Bush's handling of the conflict.

Bush repeated Wednesday that U.S. troops will leave only when Iraqis are capable of providing for their own security.

"I've told the American people all along our troops will stay there as long as necessary," he said. "We'll do the job. We'll train these folks. And as they become more capable, we'll be able to bring folks home with the honor they've earned."

But Democrats in the Senate said Bush needs to outline a plan for winning the now two-year-old war.

"It's time the president tells us how he plans on getting us out of the hole he's dug us so deeply into. And just to stop digging, as the old saying goes, is not enough," said Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The senator from Delaware urged Bush to convene a summit of Iraq's neighbors to hammer out a broader peace for the region, as the United States did in Afghanistan and during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Bush must do more than repeat his previous statements.

"We will not accept staying the course," said the Nevada Democrat. "What we do want him to do is answer our questions, to give the American people some outline, some benchmarks, some metrics as to what he expects and what has happened in the past. We are entitled to that information."

Elections for permanent government

Registered Iraqi voters will head to the polls on October 15 to vote on whether to accept a new constitution.

Sunni Arabs, who are the minority in Iraq but who dominated during Saddam Hussein's regime, could defeat the charter if they get a two-thirds "no" vote in any three provinces -- a possibility that could occur in four of Iraq's 18 provinces.

The majority of Shiites and Kurds appear to favor the constitution.

The document's approval would lead to elections for a permanent government. But if rejected, elections for a new transitional government would be held and the process of drafting a national charter would start over.

Washington hopes approval of the constitution would deal a blow to the bloody insurgency.

Bush met Wednesday with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace and Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of the effort to train and equip Iraqi soldiers.

Petraeus said later that only one Iraqi battalion -- about 750 troops -- is capable of operating independent of coalition support.

But he said about 35 battalions are capable of taking the lead in operations with U.S. troops, and many of those second-tier units have assumed control over cities in southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad.

Even third-tier troops are capable of "thickening" the capabilities of coalition forces by manning checkpoints and serving as guides or interpreters for U.S. troops, Petraeus told reporters at the Pentagon after his meeting with Bush.

"The Iraqis are in this fight. They are fighting and dying for their country, and they are fighting incredibly well," Petraeus said.

Asked whether a significant number of U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Iraq in 2006, as some top officers have suggested, he said, "I wouldn't venture that."

"This is going to be very conditions-based," he said, adding that the political development of Iraq's government is "very, very important" to supporting the fledgling Iraqi army.

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