WASHINGTON – Five years after launching the invasion of Iraq, President Bush strongly signaled Wednesday that he won't order troop withdrawals beyond those already planned because he refuses to "jeopardize the hard-fought gains" of the past year.
The president's address at the Pentagon was part of a series of events the White House planned around the observance of the beginning of the Iraq war and next month's report from the top U.S. figures in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. That report will be the basis for Bush's first troop-level decision in seven months.
"The battle in Iraq has been longer and harder and more costly than we anticipated," Bush said.
But, he added, before an audience of Pentagon brass, soldiers and diplomats: "The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage, the battle in Iraq will end in victory."
Democrats took issue with Bush's stay-the-course suggestion.
"With the war in Iraq entering its sixth year, Americans are rightly concerned about how much longer our nation must continue to sacrifice our security for the sake of an Iraqi government that is unwilling or unable to secure its own future," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Democrats will continue to push for an end to the war in Iraq and increased oversight of that war."
Bush repeatedly and directly linked the fight there to the global battle against the Al Qaeda terror network. And he made some of his most expansive claims of success. He said the increase of 30,000 troops that he ordered to Iraq last year has turned "the situation in Iraq around." He also said that "Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive Al Qaeda out."
"The surge ... has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror," the president said. "We are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Usama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network. And the significance of this development cannot be overstated."
Bush appeared to be referring to recent cooperation by local Iraqis with the U.S. military against the group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly homegrown, though foreign-led, Sunni-based insurgency. Experts question how closely -- or even whether -- the group is connected to the international Al Qaeda network. As for bin Laden, he is rarely heard from and is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
The U.S. has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. That number is expected to drop to 140,000 by summer in drawdowns meant to erase all but about 8,000 troops from last year's increase.
Faster and larger withdrawals could unravel recent progress, said Bush. "Having come so far and achieved so much, we are not going to let this happen," he said.
It is widely believed that he will endorse a recommendation from Petraeus next month for no additional troop reductions, beyond those already scheduled, until at least September. This pause in drawdowns would be designed to assess the impact of this round before allowing more.
The surge was meant to tamp down sectarian violence in Iraq so that the country's leaders would have time to advance legislation considered key to reconciliation between rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities. But the gains on the battlefield have not been matched by dramatic political progress, and violence again may be increasing.
Bush, who has successfully defied efforts by the Democratic-led Congress to force larger troop withdrawals, criticized those who "still call for retreat" in the face of what he called undeniable successes.
"The challenge in the period ahead is to consolidate the gains we have made and seal the extremists' defeat," he said. "We have learned through hard experience what happens when we pull our forces back too fast -- the terrorists and extremists step in, fill the vacuum, establish safe havens and use them to spread chaos and carnage."
With just 10 months before he hands off the war to a new president, Bush is concerned about his legacy on Iraq.
Both Democratic candidates have said they would begin withdrawing forces quickly if elected. Only expected GOP nominee John McCain has indicated he planned to continue Bush's strategy of bringing troops home only as conditions warrant.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who just completed a two-day visit to Iraq, said the administration won't "be blown off course" by continued strong opposition to the war in the United States.
Cheney compared the administration's task now to Abraham Lincoln's during the Civil War. "He never would have succeeded if he hadn't had a clear objective, a vision for where he wanted to go, and he was willing to withstand the slings and arrows of the political wars in order to get there," Cheney said of Lincoln in an interview broadcast Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
As of Tuesday, at least 3,990 members of the U.S. military have died in the war, which has cost the U.S. roughly $500 billion. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglizt and Harvard University public finance expert Linda Bilmes have estimated the eventual cost at $3 trillion when all the expenses, including long-term care for veterans, are calculated.
Without specifics, Bush decried those who have "exaggerated estimates of the costs of this war."
"War critics can no longer credibly argue that we are losing in Iraq, so now they argue the war costs too much," he said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 03-19-08 1123EDT