(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Five years after launching the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush is making some of his most expansive claims of success in the fighting there. Bush said last year's troop buildup has turned Iraq around and produced "the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden."
Massive anti-war demonstrations were planned in downtown Washington to mark Wednesday's anniversary of the war, which has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops. Across the river at the Pentagon, Bush was to give a speech to warn that backsliding in recent progress fueled by the increase of 30,000 troops he ordered more than a year ago cannot be allowed.
"The challenge in the period ahead is to consolidate the gains we have made and seal the extremists' defeat," he said in excerpts the White House released Tuesday night. "We have learned through hard experience what happens when we pull our forces back too fast - the terrorists and extremists step in, fill the vacuum, establish safe havens and use them to spread chaos and carnage."
Bush added: "The successes we are seeing in Iraq are undeniable, yet some in Washington still call for retreat."
Democrats took a different view.
"On this grim milestone, it is worth remembering how we got into this situation, and thinking about how best we can get out," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "The tasks that remain in Iraq - to bring an end to sectarian conflict, to devise a way to share political power and to create a functioning government that is capable of providing for the needs of the Iraqi people - are tasks that only the Iraqis can complete."
The president's address sought to shift the nation's focus from economic ills to the security gains in Iraq, part of a series of events the White House planned around the anniversary and an upcoming report from the top U.S. figures in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Vice President Dick Cheney just completed a two-day visit to view Iraq developments in person. Expected GOP presidential nominee John McCain also went to Iraq this week.
Before top Pentagon officials and hundreds of others, Bush planned to trace the war's "high cost in lives and treasure" and thank those who have fought in, planned and assisted the U.S. military effort. In the excerpts, he defended the war as necessary at first, now, and for an undefined future until Iraq is stable enough to stand on its own.
"The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around - it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror," the president said.
"For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be the place where al-Qaida rallied Arab masses to drive America out. Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaida out. In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network. And the significance of this development cannot be overstated."
Bush appeared to be referring to recent cooperation by local Iraqis with the U.S. military against the group known as al-Qaida in Iraq, a mostly homegrown, Sunni-based insurgency. Experts question how closely - or even whether - the group is connected to the international al-Qaida network. As for bin Laden, he is rarely heard from and is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
Iraq no longer dominates the public debate and tops voters' concerns. With the economy taking a tumble, things improving by some measures in Iraq and much attention riveted on the 2008 presidential race, Iraq has faded from the front burner.
Bush has successfully defied efforts by the Democratic-led Congress to force troop withdrawals or set deadlines for pullouts. The U.S. has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. That number is expected to drop to 140,000 by summer in drawdowns meant to erase all but about 8,000 troops from last year's increase.
It is widely believed that Bush will in April endorse a recommendation from Petraeus for no additional troop reductions, beyond those already scheduled, until at least September. This so-called pause in drawdowns would be designed to assess the impact of this round of withdrawals before allowing more that could jeopardize the gains.
The surge was meant to tamp down sectarian violence in Iraq so that the country's leaders would have space to advance legislation considered key to reconciliation between rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities. The idea is that such political progress would weaken or even end the still-potent insurgency.
But the gains on the battlefield have not been matched by political progress, and violence may be increasing again. The Iraqis do not yet have a law for sharing the nation's oil wealth. Also unfinished is a plan for new provincial elections.
As of Monday, at least 3,990 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq. More than 29,000 U.S. service members have been injured in the war, which has cost the U.S. roughly $500 billion.
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