FORT JACKSON, S.C. (Reuters) - Issuing an upbeat new assessment of an unpopular war in Iraq, President George W. Bush hailed reduced violence and declining U.S. casualties as signs that a troop buildup was working.
"With our help, the Iraqi people are ... confronting the terrorists and they're taking their country back," Bush said in his most detailed Iraq update since announcing in September that improved security would allow limited troop cuts.
But he acknowledged the Iraqi government had fallen short in its efforts to bridge the sectarian divide and said he had "made my disappointments clear to the Iraqi leadership."
"Reconciliation at the national level hasn't been what we had hoped it would have been by now," Bush said at a ceremony for soldiers completing basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
He was speaking two days after the Iraqi government reported civilian deaths fell again in October to their lowest level this year. That was mirrored by a fall in U.S. military fatalities to 39 last month, the lowest since March 2006.
Bush was quick to play up signs of security improvements in a bid to convince skeptical Americans that his strategy of sending 30,000 extra troops to Iraq this year to stabilize Baghdad and other troubled areas was leading to a significant reduction in violence.
"Our new strategy recognizes that once Iraqis feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods, they can begin to create jobs and opportunities and that is starting to happen," Bush said.
"Corruption remains a problem, unemployment remains high and the improvements we've seen in the Iraqi economy are not uniform across the country. But overall the Iraqi economy is growing at a strong rate."
Questions remain over whether there is a lull in violence or a more lasting decline, and many Iraqis fear new sectarian fighting could erupt between increasingly divided communities.
Bush acknowledged greater efforts were needed to bridge Iraq's sectarian divide.
But the administration hopes positive news from Iraq will help put pressure on the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress to pass Bush's supplemental spending request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Efforts by Democrats to force changes to his war policy have stalled for now, but they are trying to make their feelings clear by holding up military spending bills.
Bush announced in September that security improvements on the ground had made it possible to approve limited troop cuts.
He accepted a proposal by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to withdraw about 20,000 troops by July but defied calls for a more dramatic drawdown.
The planned reductions will roll back troop strength, currently at 170,000, to around the same levels before Bush ordered the buildup of forces.
Polls show most Americans oppose Bush's Iraq strategy and would like to see a faster withdrawal of U.S. troops.
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