W ASHINGTON -- On the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, President Bush once again finds himself trying to rally American public opinion to support that costly venture. The series of speeches that began this week comes against a background of deepening skepticism on the part of voters about the effort that began in March 2003 with a lightning strike against Saddam Hussein's forces.

A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, taken just as Bush began this latest oratorical push, found 57 percent of those surveyed said it was a mistake to start the war and 60 percent believe the struggle for democracy and order in that country is going badly. Only one voter in three believes Bush has a clear plan for winning or ending the war.

It was that sense of futility that Bush sought, once again, to overcome in his speech Monday at George Washington University. Acknowledging that with sectarian violence raging, "we still have difficult work ahead in Iraq," the president nonetheless found "signs of a hopeful future." He predicted that the power struggle among factions of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations would give way to a government that "represents the will of the Iraqi people."

"We have a comprehensive strategy for victory in Iraq," he said, describing a victory that will enable American troops to leave the country in a position where terrorists no longer threaten and Iraqi forces can provide their own security.

That is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But, as retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former head of Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Persian Gulf, argues, the United States may be greatly mistaken in believing that it can determine the future of Iraq.

In his new book, "The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose," Zinni and co-author Tony Koltz recall the general's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 11, 2003, just a few weeks before Bush took the nation to war.

Zinni knew, he says, that many of his military colleagues believed Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was underestimating the manpower needs for an occupation of Iraq. "And I had heard interpretations of intelligence that many of us with deep experience in the region felt were far off the mark from the true threat."

So when Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, asked Zinni if he did not agree that anything would be an improvement on Saddam Hussein, the general demurred. Recalling that the ouster of the Soviets from Afghanistan had left that country in the hands of the Taliban, Zinni said, "Anyone who has to live in this region and has to stay there and protect our interests, year in, year out, does not look at this as a start and end, as an exit strategy, as a two-year tenure. As long as you are going to have a U.S. Central Command, you are going to be out there and have to deal with whatever you put down on the ground."

Later in the book, Zinni says that "ignoring this reality, the United States and a handful of its allies forcibly evicted the Saddam Hussein regime, with no plans for a new order to replace it. Today, U.S. military forces in Iraq are mired in an ever-worsening insurgency. Civil war is an ever-growing danger. Disorder and chaos grow ever more entrenched."

This is not latter-day wisdom from the general. In the summer of 2002, seven months before the war began, he told an audience in Florida what would be required if the U.S. invaded Iraq. "You could inherit the country of Iraq, if you're willing to do it," he said. "If our economy is so great that you're willing to put billions of dollars into reforming Iraq. If you want to put soldiers that are already stretched so thin all around the world and add them into a security force there forever, like we see in places like the Sinai. If you want to fight with other countries in the region to try to keep Iraq together, as Kurds and Shiites try and split off, you're going to have to make a good case for that."

Now it is 2006, and Bush is still trying to make that case.

David Broder writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

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