WASHINGTON - On the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, President Bush urged a fragile coalition of nations yesterday to put aside their disagreements over the war, casting the conflict in Iraq as the central front in the global fight against terrorism and a war that must be won at all cost.
Bush's televised speech in the East Room of the White House came as violence and disorder continue to bedevil Iraq, and as some once-staunch allies have dropped or weakened their support for the U.S. role there.
In somber tones, the president spoke of Iraq as inseparable from the war on terror. It seems no surprise: Bush has lost the backing of a rising number of voters who say they think the invasion was unjustified. Yet the broader war on terror remains the one issue on which a solid majority still backs him.
Should the economy remain sluggish, Bush's leadership on terrorism might be the issue on which he will most rest his re-election hopes.
"There is no neutral ground - no neutral ground - in the fight between civilization and terror," the president told a rapt audience of lawmakers, military personnel and diplomats. "Because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death. The war on terror is not a figure of speech. It is an inescapable calling of our generation."
The president, speaking for nearly 25 minutes, stood before 84 flags representing the diplomats present whose nations have pledged support in the war on terror - if not in the conflict in Iraq. He sought to move past the disputes over whether to invade Iraq that sharply divided the United States and such longtime allies as France and Germany and that have emboldened his critics at home.
"There have been disagreements in this matter, among old and valued friends," Bush said. "Those differences belong in the past. All of us can now agree that the fall of the Iraqi dictator has removed a source of violence, aggression and instability in the Middle East."
Kerry is critical
Bush's likely Democratic opponent in the November election, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, does not want those differences forgotten. Kerry, who is vacationing in Idaho, released a statement saying the president reneged on a vow to "build a genuine coalition" to wage war in Iraq, a move that Kerry said raised the military and financial burden on the United States. The senator also charged that Bush broke his promises to "go to war only as a last resort" and "to have a plan to win the peace."
"This president didn't tell the truth about the war from the beginning," Kerry said, saying the president "misled" the public when he said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Polls show Americans hold more positive views of Bush's handling of the war on terror than of his management of the Iraq conflict. By contrast, in the first few months after the invasion, a wide majority of Americans expressed approval of Bush's handling of Iraq.
In an ABC News poll released Wednesday, voters were evenly split, with 49 percent saying the invasion of Iraq was "absolutely right" or "somewhat right" and 49 percent saying it was "absolutely wrong" or "somewhat wrong." In a poll taken by the same news organization a week earlier, 48 percent said they trusted Kerry more to handle Iraq, compared with 47 percent who said they trusted Bush more.
Yet on the U.S. campaign against terrorism, a solid 57 percent said they trusted the president more, compared with 36 percent who said they placed more trust in his Democratic rival.
Kerry, who has been harshly attacked by Vice President Dick Cheney and others in Bush's camp as being weak on defense, faces a tricky challenge: to criticize the president for what Kerry says are failings in Iraq, while supporting American troops and favoring Bush's war on terror, which remains popular among the many voters who fear fresh terrorist attacks.
To walk that fine line and respond to Bush's speech, the Kerry campaign made available yesterday Samuel R. Berger, the Clinton administration national security adviser who has been advising Kerry. Berger told reporters that the president was correct to celebrate Saddam Hussein's ouster and that a lasting democracy in Iraq could set a positive example and help stabilize the Middle East.
But Berger added that because Bush failed to draw more substantial international support or to plan effectively before invading Baghdad, he has left Iraq in chaos.
"It's true that the war on terror and war in Iraq have converged," Berger said. "But it is increasingly clear that how we conducted the war in Iraq - hurried, alone and unprepared for the day after - has made the terrorism problem more difficult." He added: "I don't think we have made the world safer from terrorism by virtue of the war in Iraq."
Echoing Berger was Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, who told the Le Monde newspaper in Paris that "terrorism didn't exist in Iraq before" but that "today, it is one of the world's principal sources of terrorism."
As Bush delivered his morning speech at the White House, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged in a brief visit to Baghdad that attacks on American and civilian targets have increased. Meanwhile, officials announced that two more U.S. Marines were killed in Iraq yesterday.
'A test of our will'
The president declared that "no nation or regime is exempt from the terrorists' campaign of violence." And he invoked last week's devastating train attacks in Madrid, Spain, to remind people that "the civilized world is at war."
"Each of these attacks on the innocent is a shock and a tragedy and a test of our will," he said.
"Each attack is designed to demoralize our people and divide us from one another. And each attack must be answered, not only with sorrow, but with greater determination, deeper resolve, and bolder action against the killers. It is the interest of every country, and the duty of every government, to fight and destroy this threat."
Yet the voters of Spain responded to the Madrid attacks by ousting the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who was among Bush's strongest allies on Iraq. The new government of Spain has said it intends to remove its soldiers from Iraq unless the United Nations takes charge.
Bush tried, meanwhile, to manage the fallout from Thursday's remarks by President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, who told reporters that he felt he had been "misled" by prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Referring to the apparently flawed intelligence, Kwasniewski said, "This is the problem of the United States, of Britain and also of many other nations."
Poland, which has troops in Iraq, is often mentioned by White House officials to illustrate European support for the war.
When Bush called Kwasniewski yesterday morning, U.S. and Polish officials said, the Polish leader said he had been misinterpreted the day before and reiterated to Bush that Polish troops would remain in Iraq as long as needed. An aide to Kwasniewski told the Associated Press that his boss meant to criticize prewar intelligence in general and was not complaining about the United States.
Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, tried to stress before Bush's speech that "Poland is a strong ally in the war on terrorism. And we appreciate the strong support that they have provided in Iraq."