- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

President Bush marked the anniversary of the beginning of the war to liberate Iraq yesterday by declaring there is “no neutral ground in the fight between civilization and terror,” and called on U.S. allies to help “fight to destroy this threat to our people.”

Mr. Bush delivered his address in the East Room of the White House in front of representatives from 83 countries that have joined the U.S.-led war on terror, including France, Germany and Russia — which tried to rally much of the world to oppose the war in Iraq.

Mr. Bush, however, moved to end those diplomatic rifts, arguing that the civilized world must now unite “with greater determination, deeper resolve, and bolder action against the killers.”

“There have been disagreements in this matter, among old and valued friends,” Mr. 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.”

Scores of flags representing the nations fighting the war on terror formed the backdrop for Mr. Bush’s speech, which was greeted with a standing ovation by the diplomats at its conclusion.

At one point, Mr. Bush solemnly read the names of the 22 countries who have lost troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, vowing that “we will uphold the cause they served.”

The president also noted that the bombings in Madrid that killed 202 persons last week — as well as attacks in the past few years in Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Africa and several Arab states — are a reminder that “this is a new kind of war” in which “civilians find themselves suddenly on the front lines.”

“No nation is exempt from the terrorists’ campaign of violence,” Mr. Bush said. “There is a dividing line in our world, not between nations and not between religions or cultures, but a dividing line separating two visions of justice and the value of life.”

The “creed of the enemy,” he said, is “a mind-set that rejoices in suicide, incites murder and celebrates every death we mourn.”

“We who stand on the other side of the line must be equally clear and certain of our convictions,” the president said. “We believe in the values that uphold the dignity of life, tolerance, and freedom and the right of conscience. And we know that this way of life is worth defending.

“There is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death,” he said.

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who was vacationing in Idaho yesterday, countered the president’s speech by saying Mr. Bush “refuses to level with the American people about the cost of the [Iraq] war,” and criticized him for failing to build “a genuine coalition.”

“Simply put, this president didn’t tell the truth about the war from the beginning, and our country is paying the price,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “It’s time for George Bush to start being consistent on Iraq. It’s time to take the target off the backs of U.S. soldiers, reduce the burden on America’s taxpayers and finish the job in Iraq.”

The opportunity to build a free society in Iraq, Mr. Bush said, is essential to ultimate victory in the war on terror, and he wondered “who would begrudge the Iraqi people their long-awaited liberation?”

“We will never turn over Iraq to terrorists who intend our own destruction,” Mr. Bush said. “We will not fail the Iraqi people, who have placed their trust in us. Whatever it takes, we will fight and work to assure the success of freedom in Iraq.”

Immediately after Mr. Bush’s speech, former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark told CNN that Mr. Bush made a “strategic blunder” by attacking Iraq, even if the administration thought toppling Saddam Hussein was “low hanging fruit, an easy win.”

“What [Mr. Bush] has tried to do is make it appear that the fighting in Iraq was necessary as part of the war on terror,” said the retired Army general, who has traveled the country on behalf of Mr. Kerry. “I don’t believe that was part of the war on terror.”

Mr. Clark also said that the invasion of Iraq has allowed al Qaeda to “get a grip” in the country and that Mr. Bush’s execution of the war on terrorism is “a rightful political issue in this campaign.”

“We’re talking about the judgment of a man who led us into a war we didn’t have to fight,” said Mr. Clark, who led a war in Kosovo that did not receive approval from the United Nations. “We need a mechanism that brings in the opinions and judgments of other countries so they have a seat at the decision-making table.”

Mr. Kerry has accused the president of “exaggerating” the threat of terrorism, and many leaders in Europe — such as the incoming prime minister of Spain — have begun to rethink their support for the war.

Mr. Bush responded to such doubts by explaining that his tough, wartime rhetoric fits this global “contest of will and purpose.”

“The war on terror is not a figure of speech,” Mr. Bush said. “It is an inescapable calling of our generation. The terrorists are not offended merely by our policies, they are offended by our existence as free nations. No concession will appease their hatred. No accommodation will satisfy their endless demands.

“There can be no separate peace with the terrorist enemy. Any sign of weakness invites more violence for all nations,” Mr. Bush added. “The only certain way to protect our people is by early, united and decisive action.”

After his speech, Mr. Bush visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He met with 20 soldiers injured in Afghanistan and Iraq, awarding them the Purple Heart medal.

Mr. Bush said it was “such an honor to come to a hospital like Walter Reed, and saluted the troops who “made a decision to sacrifice for this nation’s security and for freedom in the world.”

“The spirit [of the injured troops] is strong,” Mr. Bush said after his fifth visit to Walter Reed since the war on terror began. “Their attitudes are terrific. Several badly injured soldiers told me today, ‘I want to get well quickly,’ and get back on their duty stations in Iraq; and serve our nation,” Mr. Bush said. “It is so refreshing and great to be here.”

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