Washington marked the 2,000th American fatality of the Iraq war with a moment of silence in the Senate, the reading of the names of the fallen from the House floor, new protests and a solemn vow from President Bush not to "rest or tire until the war on terror is won."
In a speech delivered just hours before the Pentagon announced the death of Staff Sgt. George Alexander Jr., Bush's voice cracked as he acknowledged those who have died in the war. "Each loss of life is heartbreaking" he said. "And the best way to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops is to complete the mission and lay the foundation of peace by spreading freedom."
Despite the mounting death toll and the growing public dissatisfaction with the war, Bush said that the United States is making steady progress by killing enemy fighters, training Iraqi troops and guiding Iraq toward democracy. He cautioned that ultimate victory in Iraq -- which he called the central front in the global war on terrorism -- will come only with patience, determination and continued sacrifice.
"This war will require more sacrifice, more time and more resolve," he said in a speech hosted by military spouses at Bolling Air Force Base. "No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead, nor should they overlook the advantages we bring to this fight."
On Capitol Hill, the 2,000th death became an occasion for touching remembrances of the fallen, even as it sparked a fresh round of debate about Bush's handling of the war. "Our soldiers in Iraq need more than happy talk of progress from the president," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in remarks on the floor of the Senate.
"These brave men and women in uniform sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom and for the security of their fellow Americans," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
The tragic milestone in Iraq came as the Bush administration is reeling from a series of political problems, perhaps none greater than the war. Bush enjoyed substantial public support when he began the war in March 2003 with the rationale of ousting a brutal dictator with possible terrorist ties who threatened the United States with weapons of mass destruction. But since then, no caches of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons have been found, and any links between former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the terrorist groups that threaten the United States have proved tenuous, at best.
Subsequently, Bush has emphasized the importance of confronting terrorists in Iraq, while planting the flag of democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
As the rationale for the war has shifted and the death toll risen, public support for it has waned. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that only 38 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the war, down from 47 percent a year earlier. The war's growing unpopularity is dragging down Bush's overall job approval rating, which stood at 42 percent in the most recent Washington Post poll -- and was even lower in subsequent surveys by other news organizations.
As Bush spoke, Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, began a vigil in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Her roadside demonstration near Bush's Texas ranch this summer helped ignite a nascent antiwar movement. The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org announced plans for television ads honoring the U.S. soldiers killed and the 15,000 others wounded in the war. The campaign is to be accompanied by thousands of planned vigils across the country this evening, which will feature protesters with signs saying "How many more?" and "Support our troops, bring them home."
In his remarks yesterday, Bush said those calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are laboring under "a dangerous illusion, refuted by a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with [insurgency leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi and [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?"
On Capitol Hill, after the Senate observed a moment of silence in honor of the fallen soldiers, senators delivered floor speeches, with many Democrats challenging Bush's war strategy.
"America cannot stand by as we drift into an open-ended, long-term commitment in Iraq," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "We owe these fallen soldiers and all who serve a clear strategy of accountability."
In the House last night, members read the names of the fallen soldiers into the Congressional Record. "We invoke the sacrifices of our fallen heroes in the abstract, but we seldom take time to thank them individually," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
While the 2,000th death caused a flurry of activity across Washington, a military spokesman in Baghdad circulated an e-mail in which he called the occasion "an artificial mark on the wall."
"The 2,000th soldier, sailor, airman or Marine that is killed in action is just as important as the first that died and will be just as important as the last to die in this war against terrorism," said Army Lt. Col. Steven A. Boylan.
Staff writers Josh White and Charles Babington contributed to this report.