- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

President Bush yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of the Iraq war by saying U.S. successes in the past year are a significant defeat for al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and that the conflict’s price in lives and money has kept Americans safe.

“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 at the Pentagon.

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.”

Bin Laden last night released an audiotape threatening the European Union for the publication in some newspapers of drawings depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, but made no mention of the Iraq war.

Opponents of the war held small protests across the country. Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, led a march to the White House to call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

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

    Her office noted the nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed and almost 30,000 injured in Iraq and pointed to the growing financial cost of the war.

    The White House in 2003 said the war might cost $50 billion to $60 billion, but the latest estimate from the Congressional Budget Office forecasts up to $2 trillion.

    Mrs. Pelosi said the war in Iraq has contributed to economic problems in the United States and distracted the military from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    Mr. Bush dismissed the criticism and said U.S. forces will draw down to about 130,000 troops by July, the level before the surge last year.

    “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.”

    He said “any further drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders.”

    The presidential candidates spent the day attacking one another’s positions on the war.

    Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois gave the first of two planned speeches on Iraq. As president, he said, he would “end this war” because “it is the right thing to do for our national security, and it will ultimately make us safer.”

    He told voters in Fayetteville, N.C., that he is the only Democratic candidate who offers a “clear contrast” with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Mr. Obama recalled that his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, voted to authorize the war.

    Mr. McCain’s campaign said Mr. Obama fails to understand the dangers of “premature withdrawal” from Iraq, and characterized the speech as a “fantasy plan” that would “destabilize the entire region.”

    The Clinton campaign suggested in a Web video that Mr. Obama is not serious about ending the war. The video showed former Obama foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power saying the candidate’s troop-withdrawal proposal over 16 months is a “best-case scenario.”

    Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Mr. McCain suggested the war could continue for 100 years. “You can count on him to do that,” Mr. Wolfson said.

    Mr. Obama is planning a speech today about the war as it relates to the U.S. economy.

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

    Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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