President Bush thanks US troops

President Bush yesterday thanked US troops for their patience in an unusual video pep talk, presenting an optimistic message ahead of Iraqi voting tomorrow even as a new poll indicated for the first time that a majority of Americans believe the Iraq war is not going well.

''When you e-mail your families, you tell them how proud the commander in chief is of their patience and their support as well," Bush said in an exchange of questions and answers with a group of 10 US troops and one Iraqi soldier.

In a series of responses to questions from Bush, a session that was rehearsed ahead of time, the soldiers in Iraq gave the president optimistic and encouraging answers to queries about the mood of the Iraqis and the outlook for a referendum tomorrow, when Iraqis will decide whether to ratify a proposed constitution.

One soldier told the president that Iraqis seemed eager to vote, while another praised US efforts to train Iraqi forces. An Iraqi soldier thanked Bush for ''everything" and added, ''I like you," drawing an appreciative response from the president.

''I wish I could be there to see you face-to-face, to thank you personally. It's probably a little early for me to go to Tikrit, but one of these days perhaps the situation will be such that I'll be able to get back to Iraq to not only thank our troops, but to thank those brave Iraqis who are standing strong."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to address directly whether the soldiers had been coached, but he did say the White House ''coordinated closely with the Department of Defense" on the event.

In the folksy chat with soldiers in Tikrit, which Bush referred to as ''Saddam's old stomping grounds," Bush assured the soldiers, ''We'll never accept anything less than a total victory."

But while the president assured US and Iraqi troops of his support, his remarks were also aimed at an American public that has grown increasingly critical of the president's performance and skeptical about the war in Iraq.

A new poll by the independent Pew Research Center yesterday indicated that 53 percent of Americans surveyed said they think the war is going ''not too well" or ''not well at all," a jump from 44 percent who felt that way in mid-September. It was the first time since Pew began polling on the topic that a majority of survey respondents had such a negative view of the mission in Iraq, reports the Boston Globe. I.L.

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