WASHINGTON - On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, President Bush delivered a speech yesterday at the Pentagon warning of "serious consequences for the world's economy" if the United States were to withdraw from Iraq and Al Qaeda were to seize control of the country's vast oil resources.
Later in the president's speech, when addressing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush talked not only of the Americans who lost their lives, but of the large number who lost their jobs.
"More than a million Americans lost work" following the attacks, he said.
Bush's speech, which otherwise dwelled on the importance of military victory and the cost of defeat, was a quiet attempt to link Al Qaeda to America's economic woes, some analysts noted. They said the president was seeking to reshape his case for staying in Iraq in a way that would resonate with an American public that is increasingly worried about high oil prices and the likelihood of a recession.
"I think he's trying to make a case that the Iraq war is integral to resolving our economic difficulties, which he knows the public is weighing more heavily now than they have in the past five years," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist with the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress, who just returned from a trip to Iraq.
Antiwar protesters also sought to link the war to the economy by blockading the offices of the Internal Revenue Service to draw attention to the high cost of the conflict. Dozens were arrested outside IRS headquarters in Washington, and hundreds protested across the city.
Bush, in his speech, contended that estimates of the war's costs have been overblown. But he also acknowledged that the "battle in Iraq has been longer and harder and more costly than we anticipated."
He said security gains made by US troops over the past year are "fragile and reversible," signaling that he is unlikely to order further troop reductions in Iraq beyond those already planned. He said the war, which has cost nearly 4,000 US lives and roughly $500 billion in direct expenses, is poised to give the United States a major strategic victory against Al Qaeda.
"We're witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden," Bush said, referring to Sunni tribes who have sided with the Americans. "The significance of this development cannot be overstated."
But some of Bush's strongest words were when he described what he said would be the consequences for pulling out of Iraq: imperiling the world's economy and putting the country's oil wealth in the hands of terrorists.
"An emboldened Al Qaeda with access to Iraq's oil resources could pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction to attack America and other free nations," he said.
The argument that US troops need to stay in Iraq to protect the country's oil is not new, but has gained potency as oil prices hit historic highs. As far back as 2005, Bush warned that if bin Laden gained control of Iraq, his group would "seize oil fields to fund their ambitions."
Around then, Melvin R. Laird, Richard M. Nixon's defense secretary, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine arguing that the United States can't abandon Iraq, as it did Vietnam, because it depends on oil from the region.
"Picture those oil reserves in the hands of religious extremists whose idea of utopia is to knock the world economy and culture back more than a millennium to the dawn of Islam," Laird wrote.
But some specialists took issue yesterday with the idea that Al Qaeda would get control of Iraq's oil in the event of a US withdrawal, because the oil is in Shi'ite and Kurdish areas that are hostile to the group.
"The idea that Al Qaeda is going to gain control over Iraq and export oil is a fairy tale, James Bond stuff," said Ilan Goldenberg, policy director at the National Security Network, a liberal group of defense and foreign policy specialists.
Michael Makovsky, who served as special assistant on Iraqi oil in the office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2006, said criminal gangs and Shi'ite militias in southern Iraq pose a more significant threat to Iraqi oil exports than Al Qaeda.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, said "the idea of Al Qaeda taking over the oil is stretch."
But Rubin said Bush's decision to raise the issue was probably an attempt to get the attention of Americans who are already anxious about today's record-high prices for gasoline.
"With oil going through the roof, it's a linkage which a lot of people will make," Rubin said.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush's remarks about oil and lost jobs were meant to highlight the economic effects of a setback in the war on terror.
"We know what the kind of impact that the 9/11 attack had on our country," she said. "Our stock markets went into a turmoil, and we had to take significant action in order to help right our economy."
But Goldenberg said Bush's attempt to use economic concerns to bolster support for his war in Iraq was unlikely to succeed.
Citing a CNN poll released yesterday, Goldenberg said 71 percent of Americans believe the war is partly responsible for the country's economic troubles.
"That's not the kind of number that President Bush can turn around," he said.