- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

WASHINGTON — Five years after he initiated the invasion of Iraq, President Bush today said that U.S. successes in the last year there have been a significant defeat for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and that the cost of blood and treasure has been worth it.

Anti-war protesters gathered around the District and the country, and a large march to the White House and rally, led by Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, was planned for this afternoon.

Mr. Bush, speaking at the Pentagon this morning, grounded his argument for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq on the premise that his surge of troops over the last year has “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.”

“For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be the place where al Qaeda rallied Arab masses to drive America out. Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al Qaeda out,” Mr. Bush said.

The president declared that “in Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his murderous network.”

White House press secretary Dana Perino defended the president’s comments at a morning press briefing, saying he was not overstating his case and that al Qaeda is “a very big factor” in Iraq.

War opponents have questioned the extent of al Qaeda’s activity in Iraq. Mr. Bush, however, said that defeating terrorists in Iraq would “reverberate far beyond Iraq’s borders.”

“By defeating al Qaeda in Iraq, we will show the world that al Qaeda is the weak horse,” he said.

Mr. Bush said his decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq last year turned the tide. The U.S. war effort in 2006 was “faltering,” he said.

The increased U.S. presence has brought considerable security gains. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, have passed some laws needed to further reconciliation, but have not yet agreed on how to distribute oil revenues.

Mr. Bush continued to brush off calls for withdrawal, though he pointed out that the U.S. is drawing down to pre-surge levels of about 130,000 soldiers.

“The challenge in the period ahead is to consolidate the gains we have made and seal the extremists’ defeat,” he said. “The gains we made are fragile and reversible.”

The president reiterated his position that “any further drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders.”

Democrats, despite the improvements, have continued to call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

“America is bogged down in a war whose costs continue to rise every week and every month, in blood and in treasure,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Mrs. Pelosi’s office pointed to the nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed and almost 30,000 injured, and to the financial cost, which has continued to grow as the war has gone on.

The White House in 2003 said the war might cost $50 to $60 billion, but the latest estimate from the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that the total cost of the Iraq war could reach $2 trillion.

Mrs. Pelosi said that the war has contributed to the current economic crisis at home, and that it has also distracted from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emmanuel, of Illinois, said that Iraq’s economy, schools and hospitals are receiving more U.S. investment than such institutions at home.

The president charged that war critics were grasping at straws.

“War critics can no longer credibly argue that we are losing in Iraq — so now they argue the war costs too much,” Mr. Bush said, accusing opponents of exaggerating the costs of the war.

“No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure,” said the president. “But those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq.”

About a dozen anti-war protesters were arrested this morning outside the Internal Revenue Service office downtown. Protests were scheduled outside the White House during the afternoon, along with a candlelight vigil this evening.

MoveOn.org, an anti-war advocacy group that has become well known for its public clashes with the White House, said that there were more than 800 anti-war vigils planned today across the country.

“After five years, it’s way past time to check the priorities of leaders who dump billions into an unwinnable war in Iraq while neglecting Americans’ most basic needs at home,” said Nita Chaudhary, MoveOn’s campaign director.

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