President Bush on Tuesday sought to firmly plant Iraq back in the American consciousness and reassert his role as the one who will shape the war ahead.
The White House finds itself in the unusual position of trying to remind the public of the war after years of trying to get beyond its shadow. The nation's focus has been consumed by economic woes and the 2008 presidential campaign — although that is expected to change next week, when the five-year anniversary of the war is sure to evoke plenty of reflection.
So Bush sought to frame the war on his terms, speaking to a friendly audience of religious broadcasters. It was the start of a communications offensive ahead of the anniversary, the NATO summit in Romania in early April, and the upcoming congressional testimony of the top U.S. figures in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Iraq and fundraising
Addressing the broader public and the people chasing his job, Bush said the 2008 presidential campaign will have no bearing on how he prosecutes the war.
"I want to assure you, just like I assure military families and the troops: The politics of 2008 is not going to enter into my calculation," Bush said. "It is the peace of the years to come that will enter into my calculation."
Bush will soon consider whether to draw down more U.S. troops, beyond those already coming home. The U.S. has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. That number is expected to drop to 140,000 by summer, and the pace of more drawdowns is a huge factor in the White House race.
The war speech came during a fundraising stop in Nashville. Bush raised $583,000 for the Republican National Committee at a private lunch at the home of former Sen. Bill Frist.
With less than a year left in office, Bush warned that security gains in Iraq are fragile and he won't jeopardize them. "There is much more work to be done," he said.
Sen. John McCain, Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, generally supports Bush's war policy. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats vying for their party's nomination, have broadly pledged to end the war and pull most troops home.
'We must be determined and steadfast'
Bush, meanwhile, got into grisly detail in describing enemy tactics in Iraq and in the Afghanistan war, the other focus of his speech. His aim was to put a face on the wars — and to remind people, in his view, that violence unchecked could come to the U.S.
"The reason why the enemy uses such brutal tactics is they're trying to shake our nerve," Bush said. "And frankly, that's not hard to do in America because we're a compassionate people ... When we see this kind of horrific killing, it affects us."
Still, he said: "It also must send a message to us that we must be determined and steadfast. We're determined to defeat this enemy."
Almost 4,000 U.S. military members have died and more than 29,000 U.S. service members have been injured in the Iraq war. It has cost roughly $500 billion.
Bush's comments come as he gets closer to handing off the war to another president, and as his government is working out arrangements for a long-term presence in Iraq.
The speech also served as a bookend of sorts to one Bush gave at the same religious National Religious Broadcasters' convention five years ago. At that time, Bush warned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to disarm and cautioned that war could be "forced upon us."
No banned weapons were ever found in Iraq, an intelligence failure that discounted a main justification for the war. Bush remains undeterred.
"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," Bush declared to huge applause on Tuesday.
Bush sprinkled religious messages throughout speech, tailored for his audience. By the end, he directly linked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to religion.
"We undertake this work because we believe that every human being bears the image of our maker," Bush said. "That's why we're doing this. No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."