This week marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, which has renewed reflection on the successes and failures of the conflict -- a war whose primary objective was to rid the world of a dictator accused of developing weapons of mass destruction. Yet no WMDs were found and rebuilding Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been much more difficult than anticipated.  

President Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq during a speech this month. "The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency. It is the right decision at this point in my presidency and it will forever be the right decision," said Mr. Bush.

However, his assessment is not universally shared, five years after he ordered some 300,000 U.S.-led coalition troops to invade Iraq.

The tanks and other armored vehicles easily rolled through the country, meeting minimal resistance and quickly toppling Saddam Hussein and his repressive dictatorship. Yet in the months that followed, no evidence was found that Saddam was actively developing weapons of mass destruction.

Instead, U.S. troops began confronting an insurgency initially made up of Sunni fighters, which began taking a heavy toll on American soldiers through roadside bombs and other attacks. Iraqi civilians -- especially Shi'ites -- also increasingly became targets of suicide bombings aimed at creating further instability and triggering sectarian violence.

An Evolving Strategy

Military expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the Bush administration was unprepared to deal with the invasion's aftermath. "We went into Iraq prepared for one kind of war, which was to overthrow Saddam's regime and defeat Iraq's conventional forces. We had the illusion we wouldn't need stability operations and nation-building. We were unprepared for what happened; we did not create the conditions for stability," says Cordesman. "Many of the mistakes we made in nation-building helped create a level of insurgency we're still dealing with as well as put a deeply divided sectarian government in power."

And this is where Iraq is today, although the insurgency has been weakened by President Bush's deployment of an additional 30,000 troops last year.

The troop surge -- accompanied by new military tactics -- has significantly reduced the level of violence compared to a year ago.

The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index shows Iraqi civilian deaths at 700 last month, compared to 2,700 in February of last year. It says there were 65 daily attacks by insurgents last month, compared to 210 the year before. And U.S. troop casualties are down significantly as well, according to the Index.

The top commander in Iraq, U.S. General David Petraeus, is hesitant about using the word "success" in describing the surge. But recently, he told VOA's Persian News Network there has been progress despite the difficulties. "Nothing is easy here; progress is difficult to achieve and it is difficult to sustain and build on," said Petraeus. "There has been progress. We're intent on trying to build on it, to try to cement some of the gains because, so far, they are tenuous and fragile. They require national political acts of reconciliation, resolving the national political issues."

U.S. Presidential Politics

The General's caution stems from the lack of progress made by the Shi'ite-dominated government in achieving political reconciliation and providing basic public services. U.S. officials say the Iraqi government must do more to take advantage of the relative decline in violence to move forward on issues such as passing long-delayed legislation on sharing oil revenues.

This apparent lack of political progress has heightened criticism of the war, especially in the U.S. presidential campaign. The two front-runners for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have pledged to begin withdrawing American troops if they are elected president.

Because a majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake, pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center says the Democrats have an advantage on the issue. "We now see a strong plurality of the American public identifying with the Democratic Party. That is a consequence of the disillusionment with Bush," says Kohut.

However, the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, has vowed to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

The Cost of War

This may be difficult as Americans grow increasingly impatient with the mounting death toll of American troops -- now at almost 4,000 -- and expenditures estimated as high as 12 billion dollars a month.

Military expert Anthony Cordesman, who recently returned from a trip to Iraq, sees no quick fix. "It does require real, serious efforts at developing improved governance and at helping Iraq move toward development. It requires a sustained effort to develop Iraqi military forces and police forces," says Cordesman. "It will mean that in some cases at least, even after the United States converts to strategic overwatch, that is essentially helping the Iraqi forces without bearing the main burden of combat, there will be cases where United States air support, artillery and perhaps even ground forces are needed. But when we talk about a slow phase-down, we're talking about three-to-four years."

For now, as the war enters its sixth year, most analysts agree that there seems to be no early end to the violence in Iraq.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.