/ 20 March 2008

Bush: Battle in Iraq is noble, necessary and just

George Bush marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion on Wednesday with an uncompromising speech in which he described the war as noble, necessary and just and claimed there was now an unprecedented Arab uprising under way against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

With polls showing most Americans opposed to the war, Bush was unrepentant and adamant United States forces would remain in Iraq.

”Five years into this battle, there is an understandable debate over whether the war was worth fighting, whether the fight is worth winning, and whether we can win it,” he said. ”The answers are clear to me: removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision — and this is a fight Americans must win. Because we acted, the world is better and the United States of America is safer.”

The war has killed tens of thousands of people, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and been blamed for creating fresh instability in the Middle East.

Speaking to a small gathering of troops in the Pentagon, he claimed his decision last January to increase the number of US troops in Iraq from 124 000 to 154 000, the surge strategy, had decreased violence and ”opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror”.

He added: ”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. In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his murderous network. And the significance of this development cannot be overstated.”

Bush went on to say: ”The battle in Iraq is noble, it is necessary, and it is just. And with your courage, the battle in Iraq will end in victory.”

Having indicated that the number of US troops would drop to about 140 000 in the summer, he hinted he was not planning any further withdrawals when General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, returns to Washington to review progress next month.

There were small protests in Washington on Wednesday but a promised mass demonstration failed to materialise.

Bush’s comments amounted to his most upbeat assessment of the war since his famous ”mission accomplished” speech on a US aircraft carrier in May 2003.

Since then, Iraq has been convulsed by Sunni and Shi’ite insurgencies against the US-led coalition and vicious sectarian tit-for-tat killings. The Iraq Body Count group, in a survey on behalf of the Guardian that looked at the death toll province by province, on Wednesday put the number of civilian deaths at 89 322.

These are based on reported deaths, as opposed to other surveys that offer estimates and put the toll at between 600 000 and one million. The number of US soldiers killed is 3 990, and the British military death toll 175.

Bush did not mention the failure to find Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, the stated reason for war, but returned to the theme, warning that a hasty US withdrawal could lead to an emboldened al-Qaeda, with access to Iraq’s oil resources, pursuing ”its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations”.

With less than a year left in office, the president is a largely isolated figure. Most of the neo-conservatives who pressed him to go to war have gone.

The fragile multinational coalition Bush put together has also largely disappeared, with countries having either abandoned the war or left token forces behind. — Â