WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he had no regrets about the unpopular war in Iraq despite the "high cost in lives and treasure" and declared that the United States was on track for victory.
Marking the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion with a touch of the swagger he showed early in the war, Bush said in a speech at the Pentagon, "The successes we are seeing in Iraq are undeniable."
With less than 11 months left in office and his approval ratings near the lows of his presidency, Bush is trying to shore up support for the Iraq campaign, which has damaged U.S. credibility abroad and is sure to define his legacy.
But he faced the challenge of winning back the attention of war-weary Americans more preoccupied with mounting economic troubles and increasingly focused on the race to pick his successor in the November election.
Bush's Democratic critics used the anniversary to press accusations that the Republican president launched the invasion based on faulty intelligence, mismanaged the war and failed to put together an exit strategy.
"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," Bush told an audience of top military officers and Pentagon employees.
"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 said.
Rejecting calls from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for a timetable for early withdrawal, Bush touted security gains from a troop buildup or "surge" he ordered last year. He insisted that "retreat" would embolden al Qaeda and Iran and put the United States at risk.
"The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around -- it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror," Bush said, hailing increased cooperation of Iraqi Sunnis in fighting al Qaeda.
Such an assertion could come back to haunt Bush if the situation deteriorates. War critics have roundly mocked Bush for his premature declaration in May 2003 that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over as he stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
Bush stopped short of promising outright victory, as he had earlier before sectarian violence swept Iraq last year. "No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure, but those costs are necessary," he said.
The war has cost the United States $500 billion. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and millions displaced. Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed, as well as 175 British troops and 134 from other countries.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the war was not worth waging.
Told about the poll in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Vice President Dick Cheney, in Oman after a visit to Iraq, said dismissively: "So?"
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "The cost to our national security has been immense -- our military is stretched thin and our reputation in the world is damaged."
Scattered anti-war protests were staged in U.S. cities. In Washington, 32 people were arrested for blocking entry to the Internal Revenue Service and a few dozen noisy demonstrators shouted antiwar slogans outside the White House gates.
Bush, who had strong public support after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, has long called Iraq as a central front against Islamic extremists. But Democrats say his administration has been distracted from what they see as a more important struggle in Afghanistan.
In his speech, Bush hailed the increased role of Iraqi Sunnis in the fight against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda as the "first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology, and his murderous network."
Absent from Bush's speech was any mention of the Iraqi government's record on sectarian reconciliation, an area in which there has been only halting progress.
Violence across Iraq has dropped 60 percent since 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed in June. But a recent spate of attacks showed that Iraq was far from safe.
Bush's speech was his second in lead-up to the next status report Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus will give to Congress in early April. The military will complete the withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by July, leaving about 140,000 in Iraq.
Bush reiterated any decision on bringing more troops home would depend on recommendations from commanders on the ground.
Editing by Eric Walsh