By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
March 19, 2008 - President Bush reflected on the triumphs and tragedies of the Iraq war today, five years after the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein and roughly one year after a troop surge helped to tamp down violence there. In the midst of what he referred to as an "understandable debate" over the merits of war and the prospects of U.S. victory, Bush expressed confidence in Operation Iraqi Freedom during a speech at the Pentagon.
"The answers are clear to me," he said. "Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, and this is a fight America can and must win."
Five years ago, tens of thousands of U.S. troops aided by "the most effective and precise air campaign in history" poured across Iraq's border to topple Saddam's ruthless dictatorship, Bush said. Since then, 12 million Iraqis have defied terrorism and cast votes in free Iraqi elections.
"The liberation of Iraq took incredible skill and amazing courage," he said. "And the speed, precision and brilliant execution of the campaign will be studied by military historians for years to come."
Meanwhile, however, progress in Iraq was undermined by al Qaeda attacks against innocent civilians, a harbinger of the brutality extremists would replicate in the United States if given the opportunity, the president added.
"We have watched in horror as al Qaeda beheaded innocent captives and sent suicide bombers to blow up mosques and markets," Bush said. "And they serve as a grim reminder that terrorists who murder the innocent in the streets of Baghdad want to murder the innocent in the streets of America."
The president conceded the war has been costly -- both in terms of its price tag and human casualties. As of January, Operation Iraqi Freedom had cost $416 billion, a Pentagon spokesman said. Further, 3,988 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq to date, and 29,395 others have been wounded, according to the latest Defense Department statistics.
"No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure," the president said. "But those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq."
This time last year, the fight in Iraq was faltering, Bush said. "Extremist elements were succeeding in their efforts to plunge Iraq into chaos. They had established safe havens in many parts of the country. They were creating divisions among the Iraqis along sectarian lines," he said, noting that Iraqi divisiveness was mirrored by political divisions in Washington.
In the face of mounting pressure to reduce the number of troops in Iraq, Bush said, his administration resolved not to "retreat in the face of terror," as force withdrawal could have ushered in violence of "genocidal levels."
Instead, in a dramatic shift in policy, the U.S. launched a 33,000-troop surge aimed at quelling sectarian-fueled fighting in Iraq and helping prepare Iraq's national forces to maintain security.
The deployment of the five additional combat brigades, which completed this time last year, coupled with an invigorated counterinsurgency effort led by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, is heralded by officials as a widely successful U.S. strategic military move that has significantly reduced violence levels.
"General David Petraeus took command with a new mission: work with the Iraqi forces to protect the Iraqi people; pressure the enemy in his strongholds and deny the terrorists sanctuary anywhere in the country," Bush said. "And that is precisely what we have done."
Largely as a result of the surge, more than 90,000 Iraqi citizens are now aiding coalition forces as they work to secure Iraq with the more than 100,000 soldiers and police who joined the country's national security forces last year, the president said. In addition, the United States has doubled the number of civilian-expert teams, known as provincial reconstruction teams, operating across Iraq's 18 provinces.
"These Iraqi troops have fought bravely, and thousands have given their lives in this struggle," Bush said. "Together, these Americans and Iraqi forces have driven the terrorists from many of the sanctuaries they once held."
Bush called the security gains "fragile and reversible," adding that difficult fighting against extremism remains unfinished in Iraq and elsewhere.
"Throughout the war on terror, we have fought the enemy on every single battle front," he said. "And so long as terrorist danger remains, the United States of America will continue to fight the enemy wherever it makes its stand."
Before reaffirming his commitment to victory over extremism, the president expressed gratitude to troops around the world, and the families who carry the burden of their sacrifices at home.
"We're grateful to all the brave men and women of our military who have served the cause of freedom. You've done hard work far from home and far from your loved ones," he said. "We give thanks for all our military families, who love you and have supported you in this mission."