WASHINGTON -- In a bold redefinition of a war that began primarily as an attempt to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush yesterday said Iraq is where the United States will make its stand against terrorists from around the world who flowed into the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq, the president insisted, has become the seminal fight of the post-Sept. 11 world.
The president made it clear in his speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., that the United States is in Iraq to do more than help the Iraqi people set up a stable government -- it is there to confront foreign fighters who came to Iraq from ''Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and other nations."
There was no discussion, however, of how those fighters slipped through borders that US forces failed to secure, or any other flaws in postwar plan-ning: Bush's intention was to get ahead of public opinion, to leave his critics worrying over failures that are now little more than water under a bridge at the Tigris River.
''The principal task of our military is to find and defeat the terrorists -- and that is why we're on the offense," Bush said.
Bush even included a rare mention of renegade Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- not to emphasize the need to capture him in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but to point out that he called for jihadists to fight in Iraq and to emphasize the importance of fighting back against Al Qaeda there.
In last year's presidential campaign, many Democrats insisted that the search for bin Laden was the important fight and that Iraq had proved to be a costly distraction. Some voters agreed, but others clearly accepted Bush's argument that Iraq was a crucial battle as well.
Now, after 600 additional American deaths brought the total to more than 1,740, Americans are reassessing the war. But while polls indicate that Bush may now be losing public support on last year's big issue, over whether he was right to pursue the Iraq war, he is retaining it on his decision to stay and fight.
Despite cries from many Democrats and some Republicans to come up with a withdrawal plan, 58 percent of the public in an ABC News/
Bush last night seemed to go out of his way to court people who may not have agreed with the original decision to go to war. He included repeated references to international efforts to help train Iraqi soldiers, an obvious plea to those who thought the war lacked global backing. Bush even quoted the resolutely antiwar German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, on the importance of creating a peaceful and stable Iraq.
''The terrorists know that the outcome will leave them emboldened, or defeated," Bush said. ''So they are waging a campaign of murder and destruction. And there is no limit to the innocent lives they are willing to take."
It is a compelling argument, but like so much about Iraq, it may be less simple than Bush is making it. Most military specialists count the numbers of foreign fighters in the hundreds or low thousands; a larger part of the insurgency is powered by thousands of Iraqi fighters, mostly Sunni nationalists in the volatile Al Anbar Province. Their aim is not to pursue terrorism against the United States. It is to achieve a Sunni-led Iraq or, failing that, a separate Sunni nation.
But the American public will not necessarily want to sacrifice any more troops just to stabilize the Sunni Triangle. Continued support for the war requires a larger cause.
Bush presented one, but his credibility may be a problem. In the ABC News/ Post poll, 52 percent thought the administration intentionally misled the public to make the case for war in the first place.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is gone from the administration, but his ''Pottery Barn rule" remains: You break it, you own it.
Iraq is broken and Bush owns it. As last night made clear, he will almost certainly have to fight the insurgency and American popular opinion over shifting sands for the remainder of his presidency.