WASHINGTON – President Bush found himself in a familiar position on Thursday as he paid tribute to the latest batch of troops killed in Iraq and sought to reassure Americans once again that the rising casualties were worth the cost.

“We will stay the course,” the president said. “We will complete the job in Iraq.”

With each grim milestone in the war – when the number of troop deaths reached 500, then surpassed 1,000, and now inches its way toward 2,000 – the president has delivered virtually the same words.

But as the military announced five more U.S. fatalities on Thursday, bringing to 26 the number of Americans killed in the first three days of the month, the Bush administration faced the reality that August is on track to becoming one of the bloodiest months since the war began. And polls suggest the deaths are straining the patience of Americans, increasing the pressure to develop an exit strategy.

While the casualty list has incrementally grown almost every day since the invasion began in 2003, the concentration of this week’s death toll from an Ohio Marine battalion underscores the strength of the insurgency and raises new questions about the public’s tolerance for the war in Iraq. As many as 20 Marines linked to a battalion based in the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park have died in combat over the last week, thrusting the war back onto the front pages and network newscasts after attention had turned away during the summer months.

“Support for the war is in decline and a greater number of people are saying we should get the troops out of there,” said Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center in Washington, an independent group that tracks public opinion. “It’s not been a reaction to specific events as much as a recognition that deaths are mounting.”

This week, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed only 38 percent of Americans approve of how the president has handled Iraq. Nine months ago, polls found the public to be equally divided on Iraq, with Bush winning re-election, in part, because of his stand on terrorism and the war.

As a videotaped warning was shown Thursday from the No. 2 al-Qaida leader, who vowed tens of thousands of American troops would die if U.S. forces didn’t leave Iraq, Bush said such threats would only strengthen his resolve to stay until a democratic government was formed.

“We owe it to the American people and other freedom-loving countries to bring these killers to justice,” Bush said, speaking to reporters at his Texas ranch after meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. “They will kill innocent people trying to get us to withdraw from the world so they can impose their dark vision on the world.”

U.S. officials in Baghdad insisted they were making progress toward taming the insurgency, with Brig. Gen. Donald Alston saying: “We do not see this kind of lethality every day.”

But some congressional leaders said Thursday the reality on the ground in Iraq did not seem to square with the Pentagon’s claims.

“The public is supportive of our troops, but when it comes to the policies of the administration there is an increasing concern that there is not a clear strategy to bring the troops home,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “This latest tragedy involving so many Marines is a reminder to people of how deadly it can be.”

But one critic of the war in Iraq, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said in an interview Thursday this was a time to pay tribute to the troops, not raise objections to the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. While he has spent the last three years loudly opposing the war, including mounting a presidential bid because he said Democrats weren’t questioning Bush enough, Kucinich said the Ohio casualties transcended politics.

“It was like a lightning strike of grief in Brook Park,” said Kucinich, whose district includes the Marine reserve unit base. “I want to keep the focus on supporting the families who have lost loved ones and for those who continue to serve.

“There is plenty of time to talk about everything else,” he added. “But right now, it’s not appropriate.”

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