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Bush: More to Iraq story than violence

But Baghdad may be tougher to secure than other cities, he says

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President Bush speaks Monday at the City Club of Cleveland.

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (CNN) -- In the face of flagging support for the war, President Bush said Monday that though Americans might be dismayed by events in Iraq, he sees signs of progress.

"The situation on the ground remains tense," Bush told an audience at the City Club of Cleveland. "In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken.

"Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."

The president cited the northern city of Tal Afar, a former insurgent stronghold that has been largely peaceful recently.

"The savagery of the terrorists and insurgents who controlled Tal Afar is really hard for Americans to imagine," Bush said. "They enforced their rule through fear and intimidation, and women and children were not spared." (Read a full transcript)

He said U.S. and Iraqi forces had retaken the city from insurgents once before, in 2004, only to see insurgents return because there weren't enough trained Iraqi police and troops to maintain order.

Before the second offensive in September, U.S. troops built a berm around the city of 200,000, then allowed residents to leave.

Iraqi troops took the lead in the retaking and rebuilding of the city, Bush said.

"In this city, we see the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for," he said. "A free and secure people are getting back on their feet ... are participating in government and civic life."

The strategy that led to success in Tal Afar "did not emerge overnight," Bush said. "It came only after much trial and error. It took time to understand and adjust to the brutality of the enemy in Iraq."

Stopping the violence likely will be more difficult in Baghdad, where 5 million Iraqis live and sectarian violence has changed the dynamic of the security situation in the Iraqi capital.

"I wish I could tell you that the progress made in Tal Afar is the same in every single part of Iraq. It's not," Bush said.

A prominent Democrat said Monday that Bush, instead of making speeches, should concentrate on putting more pressure on Iraqi officials to form a government.

"If his war fails, then America is hurt, America fails," said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

On Sunday, the president made a brief statement at the White House, saying he was optimistic the U.S. strategy in Iraq is working.

"And a victory in Iraq will make this country more secure and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come," he told reporters.

Bush hailed the political process, which diplomats and military officials have said is key to defeating the Iraqi insurgency.

"The Iraqi people voted for democracy last December -- 75 percent of the eligible citizens went to the polls to vote," he said. "Now the Iraqi leaders are working together to enact a government that reflects the will of the people. I'm encouraged by the progress."

Bush met Monday with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and the president said he thanked NATO for helping train Iraqi security forces.

The president's address in Ohio was the latest in a series of speeches on the war. Last week, Bush argued that Iraqi security forces have shown they can handle tougher assignments and have reacted well during recent sectarian violence.

"The situation in Iraq is still tense, and we're still seeing acts of sectarian violence and reprisal," Bush said in Washington. "Yet out of this crisis, we've also seen signs of a hopeful future."

Although the president is upbeat about Iraq, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll indicates Americans are more pessimistic about the war and where Iraq is heading.

In the survey, 41 percent of respondents said the prospect of a U.S. victory is unlikely or certain not to happen. In a 2003 poll, 1 percent was sure of a U.S. defeat, with 3 percent saying a U.S. victory was unlikely.

Most of the people questioned March 10 to 12 -- 55 percent -- said they thought Iraq was heading for civil war, while 40 percent said the country could emerge with a stable government.

As of Monday, 2,316 U.S. troops have died in Iraq. Estimates of Iraqi dead range from about 30,000 to more than 100,000.

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