President Bush used the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq on Wednesday to make the case for persevering in a conflict that will in all likelihood have many more anniversaries.
Mr. Bush, speaking before troops, officers and defense officials at the Pentagon, acknowledged in some of his bluntest language yet that the costs of the war, in lives and money, had been higher than he had anticipated – and longer.
He remained unwavering, however, in his insistence that the invasion of Iraq that began in March 2003 had made the world better and the United States safer.
“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,” he said. “The answers are clear to me. Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, and this is a fight that America can and must win.”
Mr. Bush gave his speech as sporadic and relative small protests erupted in several places here in Washington, and in other cities. “How much longer?” read a banner along the president’s route to the Pentagon across the Potomac. There were scattered arrests, including some in front of the Internal Revenue Service, where demonstrators protested the use of taxpayers’ dollars.
As it has in the past, the anniversary galvanized the war’s critics and, to a lesser degree, its supporters. And many of the arguments on both sides fell along familiar lines. The scale and the fury of antiwar protests, however, appears to have diminished from just a year ago before Mr. Bush ordered “a surge” of still more American troops to Iraq that has resulted, according to many, in a decline in overall violence there.
Even in the presidential campaign to replace Mr. Bush, the issue has dropped in significance, as the economy, health care and race have risen in prominence. Iraq, nonetheless, continues to illustrate the stark divide between the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, and the two Democrats, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. McCain, who visited Iraq this week, released a statement echoing the president’s rationale for the war, saying that the United States and its allies in Iraq stood “on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism.”
At a community college in Fayetteville, N.C., Mr. Obama drew the opposite conclusion. He noted that the war in Iraq had now lasted longer than the Civil War, World War I and World War II, though it has been fought on a scale far below those conflicts. “And where are we for all of this sacrifice?” he said. “We are less safe and less able to shape events abroad.”
Mr. Obama criticized both of his rivals, Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton. He said that as commander in chief he would withdraw a brigade or two each month, reducing the American force there to only to the number required to provide security for the American embassy and maintain a force capable of striking any terrorist base. Even he acknowledged that his plan would not end the war until it had already lasted seven years.
“My plan to end this war will finally put pressure on Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery. “Because we’ve learned that when we tell Iraq’s leaders that we’ll stay as long as it takes, they take as long as they want.”
The number of troops in Iraq is at the center of the administration’s planning. The top American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, is scheduled to appear before Congress in early April to present his recommendations on how to continue the war after the withdrawal of the 30,000 additional troops ordered to Iraq by Mr. Bush last year.
The troops brought the total number of Americans fighting there to a peak of more than 160,000. Most of those added troops are scheduled to leave by the end of summer, leaving a force of more than 130,000. General Petraeus and other commanders have indicated that there should be a pause in any further reductions – though for how long remains unclear – to see if security in Baghdad and other cities deteriorates as a result of the withdrawals already taken.
In his remarks, Mr. Bush said he had made no decision but indicated that he would be reluctant to hasten the withdrawals. As he has on several occasions recently, he touted the “surge” as a turning point in a war that he acknowledged “was faltering” a year ago.
“Any further drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders,” he said, “and they must not jeopardize the hard-fought gains our troops and civilians have made over the past year.”