WASHINGTON - President Bush stood before hundreds of soldiers last night and tried once more to connect the Iraq military operation to the Sept. 11 attacks, a time of national unity that has evaporated in two bloody years of fighting since Baghdad fell.
Bush referred six times to the 2001 terrorist attacks, even though an independent commission found no link between Saddam Hussein and the attacks, nor any connection between the former Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 mastermind.
"The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror," Bush told the troops. "This war reached our shores on Sept. 11, 2001."
While military officials have said the bulk of the estimated 20,000 insurgents are Hussein's former Baathist followers, Bush said "many terrorists" killing innocents on the streets of Baghdad "are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania."
In fact, some analysts argue, Iraq has become a magnet for terrorists since the U.S.-led invasion. Last week, Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in the region, said more foreign fighters have been entering the area and that the insurgency is as strong as it was six months ago.
Bush did not provide the specifics for a successful strategy in Iraq that some in Congress have said is necessary. For example, he gave no hint of how long American troops would remain in Iraq. At the same time, he praised the strength of Iraq's security forces - even as military officials continue to push back the time when they believe the Iraqis will be able to take over most of the fighting.
Opinion polls show that most Americans want the 135,000 U.S. troops to start coming home, and some members of Congress are pressing for a timetable for withdrawal. But Bush dismissed calls for a "deadline," saying that setting one would send the "wrong message" to the Iraqis, American soldiers and the enemy.
He repeated his statement that American troops "will stay in Iraq for as long as we are needed - and not a day longer," adding that there is "more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America's resolve."
Still, insurgencies have been known to last a decade or longer, a point made recently by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and proven in the jungles of El Salvador in the 1980s and the Philippines in the early 1900s.
As he has on other occasions, Bush said he would send more U.S. troops if necessary, although he said again that commanders have told him that "they have the number of troops they need to do the job" and that sending more "would undermine the strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight."
Lower level officers have repeatedly told reporters a different story, however. In recent weeks, troops patrolling the Syrian border with Iraq, a prime route for foreign fighters, said they don't have enough soldiers to stem the flow. And last fall, Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman, commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from Washington state that operates Forward Operating Base Anaconda north of Baghdad, told The Sun that twice during the year he had requested 500 to 700 more soldiers to beef up security outside the base but his requests had been denied.
The president said Iraqi security forces "have fought bravely," though some U.S. officers and soldiers in Iraq say the ability and fighting spirit of those troops is uneven. The Pentagon has said that about 169,000 Iraqis have been trained and equipped, but the actual number considered able to battle the insurgents is classified.
"We are building up the Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible," Bush said.
But the timetable for when that might occur has continued to slip. Abizaid told Congress in March that Iraqi security forces would be able to take over the bulk of the fight sometime this year. Last week, he told Congress it would be spring or summer 2006.
In his speech, the president listed three "new" initiatives for the training of Iraqi forces, including embedding U.S. soldiers with Iraqi units, but those initiatives have been under way for months.
Bush and commanders on the ground hope that an October referendum on a new Iraqi constitution, followed by general elections in December, will do much to stem the insurgency.
Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a frequent critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, said he, too, is hopeful. Just back from Iraq, he said he expects the insurgency to ebb after the elections.
If not, he added, "we're in trouble. It will start unraveling."
McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, expressed concern that the U.S. military is starting to break under the strain of repeated deployments. There are recruiting challenges, he said, and early signs of an exodus of officers.
By September 2006, the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq must be reduced from 17 to 10, said McCaffrey.
"The Army and Marine Corps can't sustain the current level," he added. "The Army is going to be badly damaged by the war."