WASHINGTON -- While anti-war demonstrators marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with protests and vigils, President Bush said yesterday that recent military gains have "opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror" - if America has the patience and the resolve to see it through.
Speaking at the Pentagon to an audience of military brass and diplomats, Bush reported that attacks on Americans, sectarian killings and civilian deaths were all down as a result of the troop increase that he ordered last year. But he warned that there is "still hard work to be done."
"The gains we have made are fragile and reversible," Bush said. "The challenge in the period ahead is to consolidate the gains we have made and seal the extremists' defeat."
In Washington and cities across the country, meanwhile, demonstrators protested a conflict that has cost the lives of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and at least tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Two-thirds of Americans now say the war was not worth fighting; more than half say it is no longer winnable. Most want to begin bringing troops home.
"What's victory?" Tracy Miller asked yesterday outside the White House. The Towson woman said she had come to Washington in tribute to her son, Nicholas L. Ziolkowski, a Marine sniper who was killed in Fallujah in 2004.
"Enough people have died already," Miller said. "It was a mistake to go in in the first place."
In Baltimore last night, 100 demonstrators attended a peace vigil at the intersection of York Road and Northern Parkway.
Deborah Freed-Fishelman said she was angered by Bush.
"We have not only destroyed two countries, but the world still isn't any safer," she said.
Bush has vetoed legislation by the Democratic-led Congress to wind down the war. In his address yesterday, he alluded to rotations this summer that will reduce the American presence from about 158,000 troops to 140,000. But he said any further drawdown would depend on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of commanders - "and they must not further jeopardize the hard-fought gains our troops and civilians have made over the past year."
Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to testify before Congress next month on troop levels. Commanders expect a pause of four to six weeks after the last of the surge brigades leave Iraq in July before deciding on further action.
On the campaign trail yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama said the war had stretched the military while emboldening America's enemies in Iran, North Korea and al-Qaida. As president, the Democratic contender said, he would end it.
"The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was," Obama told voters in Fayetteville, N.C. "We need to start fighting the battles that need to be won ... against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, told a Michigan audience that "the soldiers from across this great state need a commander-in-chief who will end the war in Iraq and bring them home."
But Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, said "dramatic and undeniable" security gains in Iraq have put America and its allies "on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism."
"Americans should be proud that once we implemented the surge and new counterinsurgency strategy, a dire situation has been dramatically improved," McCain said in a statement. "And, Americans know that the consequences of failure would leave our nation less secure for generations to come."
Bush, who is trying to boost support for a war that will continue beyond his presidency, said that the conflict had been "longer and harder and more costly than we anticipated." The United States has spent some $500 billion on the war so far. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard public finance expert Linda Bilmes recently estimated the eventual cost to the U.S. economy at $3 trillion.
Bush acknowledged "an understandable debate" over "whether the war was worth fighting, whether the fight is worth winning and whether we can win it."
"The answers are clear to me," he said. "Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision."
He spoke of children's prisons, torture chambers and mass graves found after the invasion.
"Because we acted, Saddam Hussein no longer fills fields with the remains of innocent men, women and children," he said. " ... Because we acted, the world is better and United States of America is safer."
Congressional leaders dismissed Bush's address as more of the same. While they acknowledge the surge has helped to reduce sectarian violence, they say it has not led to political reconciliation among Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities.
"He should have discussed how to reduce the $12 billion monthly cost of this war," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. " ... Instead, we again hear from the president a commitment to an endless war."
Bush made no mention of the supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that formed a key part of his argument for war. No such weapons have been found. But those warnings found an echo yesterday in the threat he said would be posed by a failure now to complete the mission.
"An emboldened al-Qaida with access to Iraq's oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America," he warned. "Iran would be emboldened as well."
Bush said the war is winnable. He said U.S. and Iraqi forces have isolated Shia extremists backed by Iran. He touted the "Anbar Awakening," in which Sunni tribal leaders - with the help of 4,000 Marines - turned against al-Qaida in that troubled western province.
"For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be the place where al-Qaida rallied Arab masses to drive America out," he said. "Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaida out. In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden."
Sun reporter Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.
What they're saying
"Five years into this battle, there is an understandable debate over whether the war was worth fighting, whether the fight is worth winning, and whether we can win it. The answers are clear to me. ... Because we acted, the world is better and the United States of America is safer." - President Bush
"This war has now lasted longer than World War I, World War II or the Civil War. Nearly 4,000 Americans have given their lives. Thousands more have been wounded. Even under the best-case scenarios, this war will cost American taxpayers well over a trillion dollars. And where are we for all of this sacrifice? We are less safe and less able to shape events abroad. We are divided at home, and our alliances around the world have been strained." - Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat
"The soldiers across this great state need a commander in chief who will end the war in Iraq and bring them home." - Sen. Hillary Clinton, New York Democrat
"Americans should be proud that once we implemented the surge and new counterinsurgency strategy, a dire situation has been dramatically improved. And Americans know that the consequences of failure would leave our nation less secure for generations to come." - Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican
"Controlling the tactical battle space is not the same thing as accomplishing strategic objectives. The military has done its job wherever it's been, but we have not seen the other pieces fall into place." - Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, former secretary of the Navy and Vietnam veteran
"We're out here to show support for our troops on the anniversary of the liberation of Iraq." - Kristinn Taylor, 45, of Washington, outside military recruiting center
"I've watched with horror as Bush has lied about this war. I'm appalled at the number of civilians we've killed, just as we did in Vietnam." - Craig Etchison, 62, retired professor from Cumberland and Vietnam veteran
[From staff and wire reports]