Protests, Speeches Mark Iraq Anniversary

PENTAGON (AP) — As the war in Iraq enters its sixth year, President Bush is calling it a noble, just and necessary battle.

In a speech at the Pentagon to mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion Wednesday morning, Bush said the troop increase he ordered last year has turned the situation in Iraq around, but speeding the pace of withdrawals could undermine it.

The U.S. has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. That number is expected to drop to 140,000 by summer. Since the troop increase and with a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a cease-fire declared by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the number of attacks have declined, particularly in Baghdad.

Bush hailed those developments as “the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden.” And he said it’s leading the way toward what he called “a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.”

However, presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton also spoke out about Iraq Wednesday and their assessments were vastly different than the president’s.

Barack Obama, speaking in Ayetteville, N.C., said the Iraq war has left the United States less safe yet has emboldened al-Qaida, the Taliban, Iran and North Korea.

In a speech not far from North Carolina’s Fort Bragg military base, Obama told military families and local officials the war must end.

Obama criticized both Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, saying they talk tough on national security yet make decisions that leave the country less secure.

Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. The Illinois senator repeatedly notes that he opposed the war from the start, speaking out against it when he was a state lawmaker.

In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hillary Rodham Clinton told a group of young veterans that one lesson of the war in Iraq is not to commit troops “unless you are prepared to go all the way and are prepared to be successful.”

Speaking in Pennsylvania, Clinton was questioned politely about her plans to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days after taking office. The former first lady also says U.S. forces already have fulfilled the mission they were assigned.

She says the Iraqi government has failed to create a stable political system despite the U.S. effort and it doesn’t make sense to stick around indefinitely in that situation.

Clinton’s discussion with the vets will be broadcast by MTV to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the war.

Meanwhile John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has been spending time in the Middle East to see the effects of the war firsthand. He was in Iraq earlier in the week, spent Tuesday in Jordan and Wednesday in Israel, his last stop in the region before heading to Britain and France.

It was McCain’s eighth visit to Iraq. He is accompanied by Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.

Speaking about the situation in Iraq, Senator McCain said that any hasty pullout of troops would be a mistake. He says such a move would favor Iran and al-Qaida.

He also told reporters that he’s encouraged by the success of the surge and the reduction of U.S. casualties. As to the threats from al-Qaida and Iran’s growing influence, McCain says “we are succeeding, but we still have a long way to go.”

Meanwhile, police in Washington D.C. have arrested people who scaled fences and blocked streets in protest of the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

At the entrance to the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, dozens of protesters held signs reading: “Out of Iraq” and “No blood for oil.”

Retired college professor and Vietnam War veteran Craig Etchison said he’s “appalled at the number of civilians” who’ve been killed – saying it’s like what happened in Vietnam.

College students are staging walkouts and students at the University of Minnesota have vowed to shut down military recruiting offices on campus.

In suburban Miami, a handful of protesters dressed in black waved anti-war signs at drivers stuck in early morning rush-hour traffic near the U.S. Southern Command complex.

In Seattle, about a dozen anti-war and counter demonstrators are protesting outside a military recruiting station at 2301 S. Jackson.

Another protest was scheduled at 6 p.m. at Westlake Park in downtown Seattle. The Community Coalition for Environmental Justice says it will project grief and anger at the loss of life and convey hope for peace and justice.

Thousands of protesters are taking part around the country, and even around the world, in what’s billed as a day of coordinated non-violent civil disobedience aimed at interrupting business as usual.