WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday gave a rousing defense of the Iraq war on its fifth anniversary, claiming that "the successes we are seeing in Iraq are undeniable," but Democrats — and war protesters — made it clear that they'll continue to insist that the conflict is a disaster.
Bush, speaking to a polite but restrained Pentagon audience, refused to concede any setbacks in the war, where nearly 4,000 Americans have been killed and the country has been plunged into sectarian violence. About 158,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq.
The president, who issued the order to start "Operation Iraqi Freedom" on March 19, 2003, did acknowledge Wednesday that there's "an understandable debate over whether the war was worth fighting . . . whether the fight was worth winning . . . and whether we can win it."
That debate raged Wednesday on the rain-soaked streets of Washington and across the political world, providing a vivid preview of the fall election campaign.
About 30 people were arrested when they attempted to block access to the Internal Revenue Service building in downtown Washington. A veterans group marched with American flags upside down. A knot of protesters gathered in front of the nearby American Petroleum Institute offices, saying, "No blood for oil." Around the country, hundreds of antiwar vigils were planned for Wednesday night.
Democratic officials echoed the protesters' views, as presidential candidate Barack Obama told a Fayetteville, N.C., audience that when the 2002 decision to go to war was made, "there was a president for whom ideology overrode pragmatism."
Rival Hillary Clinton offered similar remarks earlier in the week, saying, "the mistakes in Iraq are not the responsibility of our men and women in uniform, but of their commander in chief."
The two Democratic senators split, though, over which of them is trying the hardest to end the war.
"There were too many politicians in Washington who spent too little time reading the intelligence reports and too much time reading public opinion," Obama said, an oblique reference to Clinton, who voted in 2002 to give Bush broad authority to wage war and didn't read a prewar National Intelligence Estimate that included dissents raising questions about the administration's case for war.
Obama, who wasn't in the U.S. Senate at the time, spoke out against invading Iraq. Clinton has said that she'd have voted differently if she knew then what she knows now about the Iraqi threat.
Wednesday, Clinton repeated her stance that she'd begin pulling troops out of Iraq 60 days after she took office. "We cannot win their civil war," the New York senator said during a visit to Detroit. "There is no military solution."
On Capitol Hill, other Democrats railed against the war.
"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," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Republicans saw it differently.
"After countless obstacles to our success over the past five years, Iraq's fledgling democracy is at long last taking important steps toward the ultimate goal of self-rule," argued House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, echoed that thought, and illustrated how this fall's presidential race will offer voters two very different views.
"Americans should be proud that they led the way in removing a vicious, predatory dictator and opening the possibility of a free and stable Iraq," the Arizona senator said in a statement issued by his campaign. "Americans should be proud that once we implemented the surge and new counterinsurgency strategy, a dire situation has been dramatically improved."
McCain had said Tuesday in Amman, Jordan, that Iran was backing Sunni Muslim extremists in Iraq, but U.S. officials think that Iran instead supports Shiite Muslim radicals there.
McCain corrected himself, but Obama took note of the gaffe Wednesday.
"Maybe that is why he voted to go to war with a country that had no al Qaida ties," the Illinois senator said. "Maybe that is why he completely fails to understand that the war in Iraq has done more to embolden America's enemies than any strategic choice we have made in decades."
New polls have found slightly increased support for Bush's handling of the war, but a majority in the March 7-10 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll want most U.S. troops out by early next year. And only 29 percent of those whom CBS News surveyed Saturday through Monday think the war was worth the loss of American life.
"It's fair to say this is the Democrats' election to lose . . . in large part because of public disenchantment with what they see as President Bush's war," said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"Whether it (the war) stops John McCain from becoming president may well depend on the situation in Baghdad in October," Brown said.
Bush's words Wednesday were similar to McCain's.
"We have watched in admiration as 12 million Iraqis defied the terrorists, went to the polls and chose their leaders in free elections," the president said at the Pentagon.
Underscoring the brutal nature of the enemy, he reminded them: "We have watched in horror as al Qaida beheaded innocent captives and sent suicide bombers to blow up mosques and markets."
He conceded that just over a year ago, "the fight in Iraq was faltering. Extremist elements were succeeding in their efforts to plunge Iraq into chaos."
Along came a renewed U.S.-led effort, because, Bush said, "my administration understood that America could not retreat in the face of terror. And we knew that if we did not act, the violence that had been consuming Iraq would worsen and spread and could eventually reach genocidal levels."
He had a warning for critics and skeptics: "War critics can no longer credibly argue that we're losing in Iraq, so now they argue the war costs too much. In recent months we have heard exaggerated estimates of the costs of the war."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last summer put the cost of the war at $1 trillion, but other estimates have said the cost will be triple that.
Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
A White House fact sheet on the war.
The president's speech on the war on terrorism.
Barack Obama's speech on the war.
Hillary Clinton's speech on the war.
John McCain's comments on the war.