"Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it and it is vital to the security of our country," Bush told a nation increasingly doubtful about the toll of the 27-month-old war.
Bush spoke in an evening address for a half-hour from an Army base that has 9,300 troops in Iraq, hoping to convince the public that his strategy for victory needs only time-- not any changes-- to be successful. He offered no shift in course.
"We have a clear path forward," he said. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
The audience of 750 soldiers and airmen in dress uniform listened mostly quietly-- as they were asked to do to reflect the somber nature of the speech-- only breaking into applause when Bush vowed that the United States "will stay in the fight until the fight is won."
Bush said he understands the public concerns about a war that has killed over 1,740 Americans and 12,000 Iraqi civilians and cost $200 billion. "Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed," he said. "Every picture is horrifying and the suffering is real."
It was a tricky balancing act, believed necessary by White House advisers who have seen dozens of deadly insurgent attacks each day eat into Americans' support for the war-- and for the president-- and increase discomfort among even Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Democrats and other critics said the country needed to hear more specifics about how to reach success in Iraq.
"The president's Iraq policy is adrift, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in need of major midcourse corrections," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Staying the course, as the president advocates, is neither sustainable nor likely to lead to the success we all seek."
Recalling the September 11, 2001, attacks a half-dozen times and suggesting a link with the Iraq war, Bush said the United States faces an enemy that has made Iraq the central front in the war on terror. Fighters have been captured from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and other nations, Bush said.
He described the insurgents in raw terms, calling them "ruthless killers" who commit "savage acts of violence."
Bush's repeated acknowledgment of the likely deaths and difficulties to come was less than a month after Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed the Iraq insurgency "in the last throes." Still, the president's overriding message was to proclaim progress and predict victory.
Despite their violent campaign, the terrorists, he said, are no "closer to achieving their strategic objectives."
And, he said: "The American people do not falter under threat, and we will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins."
Bush has faced calls for a withdrawal of the 135,000 US troops in Iraq, on the one hand, or, on the other, an increase in forces to intensify the battle against the enemy.
But he said a timetable would be "a serious mistake" that could demoralize Iraqis and American troops and embolden the enemy. "America will not leave before the job is done," he said.
He also said sending more troops would undermine the US strategy of training Iraqis to be able to as quickly as possible take over the security of their country.
"Sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever," he said.
Marking the first anniversary of the transfer of power from the US-led coalition to Iraq's interim government, Bush cited advances in the past year. These included elections in January that drew 8 million men and women voters; improvements to roads, schools, health clinics and basic services like sanitation, electricity and water; and gains in the number and quality of Iraqi security forces who "are proving their courage every day."
He announced new steps the military is taking to prepare Iraqis to take over the anti-insurgency battle: conducting operations together with Iraqi units, embedding US transition teams inside Iraqi units and intensive management training inside the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries.
The president also noted that more countries had stepped forward with assistance and that the United Nations is helping Iraqis write a constitution and conduct their next elections. Iraq faces the next milestone in its rocky transition to democracy on August 15, the deadline to produce a draft of a new constitution.
"Our progress has been uneven-- but progress is being made," Bush said.
A recent Associated Press/Ipsos poll found a majority of Americans now think the war was a mistake.
Public patience is even being tested here in military friendly North Carolina. In the past year, 100 troops from North Carolina's bases have died in the war, trailing only the toll from California, according to an Associated Press analysis. A statewide poll released Tuesday showed that for the first time more North Carolinians think the war is not worthwhile than think it is.
Earlier Tuesday, a suicide car bomb attack that killed an influential Shia member of parliament provided a reminder of the difficulties.
Before his speech, Bush spent nearly three hours privately consoling the loved ones of 33 fallen soldiers. The widow of one of the men, Crystal Owen, gave him a bracelet engraved with the names of her husband and another soldier killed with him on October 15, 2004. Bush wore the bracelet during his speech.
In his remarks, Bush sought to bolster troop morale by asking Americans to mark the July 4 holiday by flying the flag, writing letters to soldiers, or helping a military family with someone deployed.
"The American people are behind you," the president said.
He also made a direct appeal for more people to join the armed forces, saying "there is no higher calling" than a military career.