President Bush marked the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq with a speech at the U.S. Defense Department.  VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports Mr. Bush took on his critics, saying the war is worth fighting and winning.

Looking at an audience of men and women in military uniform, the president said the past five years have seen moments of triumph and tragedy.

"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," Mr. Bush said.  "The answers are clear to me.  Removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision - and this is a fight America can and must win."

He spoke of the thousands of Americans and Iraqis who have lost their lives in the war.  But he said freedom is taking hold in Iraq, and the extremists and terrorists are losing ground.

"In Iraq, we are witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his terror network," he said.  "And the significance of this development cannot be overstated."

The president focused largely on developments during the past year, and the impact the deployment of an extra 30,000 American troops has had on the conflict.

He said before the so-called troop surge, the fight in Iraq was faltering, and extremists were succeeding in their efforts to plunge the country into chaos.

"The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around," Mr. Bush said.  "It has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.  For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be a place where al-Qaida rallied Arab masses to drive America out.  Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaida out."

President Bush said the challenge is to consolidate gains, stressing this is not the time to call for retreat.  He acknowledged the costs of the war have been high, both in terms of lives and treasure.  But he said the cost of walking away would be much worse.

"If we were to allow our enemies to prevail in Iraq, the violence that is now declining would accelerate and Iraq could descend into chaos," Mr. Bush said.  "Al-Qaida would regain its lost sanctuaries and establish new ones - fomenting violence and terror that could spread beyond Iraq's borders, with serious consequences for the world's economy."

The U.S. presence in Iraq has become a big issue in the American presidential campaign, with both the top Democratic Party contenders - Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In his address at the Pentagon, President Bush made clear that he will not act hastily or under pressure to withdraw.

"Any further drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders and they must not jeopardize the hard-fought gains our troops and civilians have made over the past year," Mr. Bush said. 

Next month, the top U.S. commander and diplomat in Iraq will come to Washington to present their latest assessments to the president.  General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will also report to members of Congress.