President urges coalition on Iraq to remain united

On anniversary of war, Bush links it to terror

Allies' support is weakening

March 20, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - On the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, President Bush urged a fragile coalition of nations yesterday to put aside their disagreements over the war, casting the conflict in Iraq as the central front in the global fight against terrorism and a war that must be won at all cost.

Bush's televised speech in the East Room of the White House came as violence and disorder continue to bedevil Iraq, and as some once-staunch allies have dropped or weakened their support for the U.S. role there.

In somber tones, the president spoke of Iraq as inseparable from the war on terror. It seems no surprise: Bush has lost the backing of a rising number of voters who say they think the invasion was unjustified. Yet the broader war on terror remains the one issue on which a solid majority still backs him.

Should the economy remain sluggish, Bush's leadership on terrorism might be the issue on which he will most rest his re-election hopes.

"There is no neutral ground - no neutral ground - in the fight between civilization and terror," the president told a rapt audience of lawmakers, military personnel and diplomats. "Because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death. The war on terror is not a figure of speech. It is an inescapable calling of our generation."

The president, speaking for nearly 25 minutes, stood before 84 flags representing the diplomats present whose nations have pledged support in the war on terror - if not in the conflict in Iraq. He sought to move past the disputes over whether to invade Iraq that sharply divided the United States and such longtime allies as France and Germany and that have emboldened his critics at home.

"There have been disagreements in this matter, among old and valued friends," Bush said. "Those differences belong in the past. All of us can now agree that the fall of the Iraqi dictator has removed a source of violence, aggression and instability in the Middle East."

Kerry is critical

Bush's likely Democratic opponent in the November election, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, does not want those differences forgotten. Kerry, who is vacationing in Idaho, released a statement saying the president reneged on a vow to "build a genuine coalition" to wage war in Iraq, a move that Kerry said raised the military and financial burden on the United States. The senator also charged that Bush broke his promises to "go to war only as a last resort" and "to have a plan to win the peace."

"This president didn't tell the truth about the war from the beginning," Kerry said, saying the president "misled" the public when he said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Polls show Americans hold more positive views of Bush's handling of the war on terror than of his management of the Iraq conflict. By contrast, in the first few months after the invasion, a wide majority of Americans expressed approval of Bush's handling of Iraq.

In an ABC News poll released Wednesday, voters were evenly split, with 49 percent saying the invasion of Iraq was "absolutely right" or "somewhat right" and 49 percent saying it was "absolutely wrong" or "somewhat wrong." In a poll taken by the same news organization a week earlier, 48 percent said they trusted Kerry more to handle Iraq, compared with 47 percent who said they trusted Bush more.

Yet on the U.S. campaign against terrorism, a solid 57 percent said they trusted the president more, compared with 36 percent who said they placed more trust in his Democratic rival.

Kerry, who has been harshly attacked by Vice President Dick Cheney and others in Bush's camp as being weak on defense, faces a tricky challenge: to criticize the president for what Kerry says are failings in Iraq, while supporting American troops and favoring Bush's war on terror, which remains popular among the many voters who fear fresh terrorist attacks.

To walk that fine line and respond to Bush's speech, the Kerry campaign made available yesterday Samuel R. Berger, the Clinton administration national security adviser who has been advising Kerry. Berger told reporters that the president was correct to celebrate Saddam Hussein's ouster and that a lasting democracy in Iraq could set a positive example and help stabilize the Middle East.

But Berger added that because Bush failed to draw more substantial international support or to plan effectively before invading Baghdad, he has left Iraq in chaos.

"It's true that the war on terror and war in Iraq have converged," Berger said. "But it is increasingly clear that how we conducted the war in Iraq - hurried, alone and unprepared for the day after - has made the terrorism problem more difficult." He added: "I don't think we have made the world safer from terrorism by virtue of the war in Iraq."

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