WASHINGTON — Congressional critics of President Bush’s stay-the-course commitment to the war in Iraq argued Wednesday that the administration lacks sufficient troops on the ground to mount a successful counterinsurgency.
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Democrats in particular criticized Bush for again raising the Sept. 11 attacks as a justification for the protracted fight in Iraq after the president proclaimed anew that he plans to keep U.S. forces there as long as necessary to ensure peace.
Urging patience on an American public showing doubts about his Iraq policy, Bush mentioned the deadly 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington five times during a 28-minute address Tuesday night at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Some Democrats quickly accused him of reviving a questionable link to the war in Iraq — a rationale that Bush originally used to help justify launching strikes against Baghdad in the spring of 2003.
Pelosi: 9/11 'sacred ground' exploited
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Bush of demonstrating a willingness “exploit the sacred ground of 9/11, knowing that there is no connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq.”
Bush first mentioned the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center at the beginning of his speech, delivered at an Army base that has 9,300 troops in Iraq. He acknowledged that Americans are disturbed by frequent deaths of U.S. troops, but tried to persuade an increasingly skeptical public to stick with the mission.
“The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001,” Bush told a national television audience and 750 soldiers and airmen in dress uniform who mostly listened quietly as they had been asked to do.
“Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war,” he continued.
Bush said he understands the public concerns about a 27-month-old war that has killed more than 1,700 Americans and 12,000 Iraqi civilians and cost $200 billion. But he argued that the sacrifice “is worth it.”
He offered no shift in course in Iraq and said he did not believe it necessary to send more troops. U.S. forces in Iraq total just under about 140,000 and they constitute the bulk of the coalition fighting force.
Force numbers questioned
Appearing on television news shows, some key lawmakers took issue with that position:
- Sen. John McCain, interviewed on CBS’s “The Early Show,” maintained that “one of the very big mistakes early on was that he didn’t have enough troops on the ground, particularly after the initial victory, and that’s still the case.” McCain, R-Ariz., did defend Bush’s call to stop terrorism abroad before it reaches the U.S. shore. Appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program, McCain said that those spreading violence in Iraq “are the same guys who would be in New York if we don’t win in Iraq.”
- Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent in last year’s presidential election, told NBC’s “Today” show that the borders of Iraq “are porous” and said “we don’t have enough troops” there.
- Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” disputed Bush’s notion that sufficient troops are in place. “I’m going to send him the phone numbers of the very generals and flag officers that I met on Memorial Day when I was in Iraq,” the Delaware Democrat said. “There’s not enough force on the ground now to mount a real counterinsurgency.”
Bush’s speech marked the first anniversary of the transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraq’s interim government. The president cited advances in the past year, including the January elections, infrastructure improvements and training of Iraqi security forces.
Democrats also criticized Bush for not offering more specifics about how to achieve success in Iraq along with his frequent mention of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The president’s numerous references to September 11 did not provide a way forward in Iraq,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said. “They only served to remind the American people that our most dangerous enemy, namely Osama bin Laden, is still on the loose and al-Qaida remains capable of doing this nation great harm nearly four years after it attacked America.”
Bush urged Americans to remember the lessons of Sept. 11 and protect “the future of the Middle East” from men like bin Laden. He repeatedly referred to the insurgents in Iraq as terrorists and said they were killing innocent people to try to “shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September the 11th, 2001.”
Troop rationale and credibility
Bush again rejected suggestions that he set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq or send in more troops. Setting a timetable would be “a serious mistake” that could demoralize Iraqis and American troops and embolden the enemy, he said.
The president also said that sending more troops would undermine the U.S. 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.
Beyond their criticism, Some Democrats said they thought Bush strengthened his credibility. “I think he told the American people why it’s important,” said Biden.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., added that “the president needs to do more of what he did last evening. This is a beginning.”
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