President Bush is marking the first anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq with a series of events meant to make his case that the war has made the country safer from terrorist attack. The president spoke to U.S. troops in the southern state of Kentucky.
Cheered by flag-waving soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division, President Bush told the soldiers they are serving at a crucial hour in the history of freedom.
"In the first war of the 21st century, you are defending your fellow citizens against ruthless enemies. And by your sacrifice, you are making our country more secure," he said.
Wearing an army-green flight jacket, Mr. Bush thanked the soldiers for helping to topple governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. A year ago, the president said, he gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to comply with U.N. resolutions. When the Iraqi leader refused, the invasion began.
"And so in one year's time, Saddam Hussein has gone from a palace to a bunker to a spider-hole to jail," he said.
The immediacy of the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was the president's biggest justification for invading Iraq. But on the first anniversary of the start of that war, none of those weapons has yet been found.
That has led to questions about how Mr. Bush made his case for war. Without mentioning the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, the president told the troops that his administration and the U.S. Congress and the United Nations all looked at intelligence reports on Iraq and saw a threat.
"I had a choice to make. Either take the word of a madman or take such threats seriously and defend America. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time," he said.
The president's presumptive Democratic challenger in this year's election, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, says Mr. Bush misled Americans about Iraqi weapons. Speaking at a university in Washington D.C. Wednesday, Mr. Kerry said the president is now misleading voters about the costs of rebuilding Iraq.
"We're still bogged down in Iraq, and the administration stubbornly holds to failed unilateral policies that drive potential significant, important long-standing allies away from us," he said. "What we have seen is a steady loss of lives and mounting costs in dollars to the American taxpayer, with no end in sight."
Looking for military votes in the November election, Senator Kerry has presented a plan to improve conditions for military families and veterans. At Ft. Campbell, President Bush reminded soldiers that he has approved three military pay increases and has boosted funding for base housing and schools.
The 101st Airborne, known as "Screaming Eagles," has lost 60 soldiers in Iraq, more than any other division-sized unit. Following lunch with the troops, the president and Mrs. Bush met privately with family members of some of those killed.
"Each of these Americans brought pride to our country. We pray for their families. We will honor their names forever," he said.
The president says this week's bombing of a hotel in Baghdad shows that there is a different kind of war now in Iraq.
"The terrorists are fighting desperately to undermine Iraq's progress toward freedom," he said. "That attack showed once again the cruelty of our enemies. The terrorists and Baathist hold-outs know that a free and stable Iraq will be a major defeat to the cause of hatred and terror."
Mr. Bush says terrorists know that the rise of democracy in the Middle East will mean the decline of their appeal and their influence. He says terrorists are testing U.S. will day by day and are learning that the will is firm, that their cause will fail, and that America will stay on the offensive no matter what it takes.