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Bush Marks 3rd Anniversary Of Start Of Iraq War

Three years to the day after the start of the Iraq War, President Bush is hailing progress in that country on the political front, and praising the work of coalition troops.

The president is focusing on the positive. He says he is encouraged by progress in the creation of an Iraqi unity government, and urges Iraqi leaders to get it up and running as soon as possible.

"The Iraqi people voted for democracy last December," said President Bush. "Seventy five percent of the eligible citizens went to the polls to vote. And now the Iraqi leaders are working together to enact a government that reflects the will of the people."

President Bush made the comments to White House reporters as he returned from a weekend at his Camp David retreat. He said as the nation marks the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq conflict, his thoughts are with the troops far from home.

"On this third anniversary of the beginning of the liberation of Iraq, I think all Americans should offer thanks to the men and women who wear the uniform and their families who support them," he said.

Earlier in the day, Vice-President Dick Cheney defended the administration's policy at a time of declining public support for U.S. involvment in Iraq.

During an appearance on the CBS television program, Face the Nation, Cheney insisted Iraq is not on the verge of civil war, though he added insurgents are doing all they can to tear the country apart.

"Clearly, there is an attempt under way by the terrorists, by Zarqawi and others, to ferment civil war," said Dick Cheney. "That has been their strategy all along. But my view would be, they have reached a stage of desperation from their standpoint."

Cheney denied the administration has presented an overly optimistic view of the war. He said the Iraqi people have met every benchmark set for political progress, and there has been movement forward on the security side.

In a commentary written for the opinion page of Sunday's Washington Post newspaper, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld detailed military gains in Iraq over the last three years. He said turning away from the Iraqi people now, would be the modern equivalent of handing post - World War II Germany back to the Nazis.

On NBC's Meet the Press program, the chief commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General George Casey, said it may take several years before U.S. forces can completely withdraw from Iraq. However, he indicated a slow drawdown in coming months is likely, as Iraqi troops and police take over the country's security responsibilities.

"I see a couple more years of this, with a gradually reducing coalition presence here in Iraq," said General Casey.

Appearing on the same television news program, a leading opponent of the war, Democratic Congressman John Murtha, said he still has not seen any major sign of progress on the security front. Murtha, a veteran of the Vietnam war, repeated his call for a rapid redeployment of U.S. forces currently serving on Iraqi soil.

"At some point you have to change direction," said Congressman Murtha. "What I am saying is, we have to redeploy our troops, because they are caught in a civil war."

President Bush is taking on his critics in a series of speeches on Iraq scheduled to mark the passage of three years since the start of the conflict. On Monday, he travels to Cleveland, Ohio, to talk about efforts being made to rebuild Iraqi communities and achieve stability.