June 29, 2005

Democrats fault Bush over Iraq link to Sept. 11

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats on Wednesday challengedPresident Bush's claim that America must stay the course inIraq because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but his backerssaid the link was justified.

"I feel compelled ... to set the record straight about whywe got into this war," said Sen. John Rockefeller of WestVirginia, top Democrat on the U.S. Senate IntelligenceCommittee.

"It had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. It had nothingto do with al Qaeda. It had nothing to do with September 11th,"Rockefeller told a news conference.

Rockefeller and other Democrats pointedly noted that thestated reason for U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was the claim thatSaddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which havenever been found.

Bush delivered a prime-time speech on Tuesday designedlargely to shore up sagging public support for the increasinglycostly war in Iraq.

In the half-hour address, Bush referred five times to theSept. 11 attacks. And he sought to connect Iraq's insurgency tobin Laden's al Qaeda network, blamed for the worst assault everon U.S. soil.

"What the president was talking about was that September 11taught us important lessons," White House spokesman ScottMcClellan said. "It taught us that we must confront threatsbefore they fully materialize, before they reach our shores."

Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John Warner, aVirginia Republican, said Bush had delivered the right message.

"He said it's going to be a long, hard, tough slog, butwe're going to stay the course, and we will achieve the goal ofenabling the Iraqi people to take over their nation," Warnersaid.


Although Bush's address drew praise from many fellowRepublicans, lawmakers of both parties criticized him for notoffering any major changes in war strategy. Some also chargedthat the training of Iraqi forces was moving far slower thanclaimed by the White House.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said it was amistake not to have more U.S. troops on the ground. Sen. JohnKerry of Massachusetts, Bush's Democratic challenger in lastyear's presidential election, said Bush missed an opportunityto give concrete details on how to fix the difficulties inIraq.

"We don't need any American, I think, to be reminded aboutthe passion of 9/11. What we need is a policy to get it rightin Iraq," Kerry told NBC's "Today" show.

No connection between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11attacks was ever established. But Bush said Iraq was a centralfront in the war on terrorism, in part because the insurgencyis led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who hassworn allegiance to bin Laden.

House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert said thatafter the Sept. 11 attacks, America had no choice but to "takethe war to the terrorists."

"If there is any doubt why we are in Iraq, one must onlyremember the events of September 11th," Hastert, an IllinoisRepublican, said.

McCain said he had not seen any compelling evidence linkingSaddam to the Sept. 11 attacks. But he told CNN, "The point isnow that if we fail in Iraq and the terrorists are there now,then clearly there would be all kinds of internationalterrorist connections."

McClellan dismissed the mostly Democratic criticism,saying, "I don't think politics and pessimism help us completethe mission.

Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul, among four lawmakers whoproposed a bipartisan resolution earlier this month calling forwithdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, said Bush offered nothingto change his opposition to the war.

"But I think the sooner we withdraw the better," Paul said.