Bush hits back at war critics


TOBYHANNA, PA. -- President Bush took a scathing swipe at his Democratic critics yesterday as he offered a defiant defense of the Iraq war, accusing nay-sayers of dishonoring U.S. troops and emboldening the enemy.

Bush, working to recover from low approval ratings and stung by Democratic accusations that he lied the nation into war with faulty intelligence, used a Veterans Day speech here to hit back.

"While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began," Bush told a cheering crowd at Tobyhanna Army Depot, an electronics maintenance facility that makes and repairs technology used on the front lines.

"The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges," Bush said.

Democrats sharply criticized Bush for the speech, accusing him of cheapening Veterans Day with comments that demonized his opponents in order to restore his credibility.

"Instead of providing open and honest answers about how we will achieve success in Iraq and allow our troops to begin to come home, the president reverted to the same manipulation of facts to justify a war we never should have fought," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.

The remarks were Bush's first direct response to charges by Democrats - made with renewed urgency in recent weeks amid the president's mounting political problems - that he misused intelligence to convince Congress and the public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The claim, which turned out to be false, was the central justification for the war.

Yesterday's speech, delivered to uniformed soldiers, veterans and American-flag-waving depot workers against placards proclaiming "Strategy for Victory," came as new national polls showed a clear majority no longer views Bush as honest or trusts him to fight terrorism.

An Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted Nov. 7-9 found Bush's popularity hovering at a low of 37 percent, with 57 percent saying he is not honest and just 42 percent - a new low - approving of his foreign policy and handling of terrorism.

Democrats are demanding that Congress open new investigations into whether Bush worked to twist prewar intelligence.

"Americans seek the truth about how the nation committed our troops to war because the decision to go to war is too serious to be entered into under faulty pretenses," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. "We stand with our troops when we ask the hard questions."

Bush sought to blunt the Democratic criticism by highlighting the party's deep divisions about the war, noting that more than 100 Democrats supported the invasion and believed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

He quoted a 2003 statement by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his opponent in last year's election, in which the Democrat said he would support a U.S.-led effort to oust the Iraqi dictator because "a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat."

"These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," Bush said.

"Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. And our troops deserve to know that, whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united and we will settle for nothing less than victory."

Kerry fired back in a statement that accused Bush of "playing the politics of fear and smear" and charged that he "misled a nation into war by cherry-picking intelligence and stretching the truth beyond recognition."

Bush's speech seemed to signal a return to the aggressive rhetoric and hardball politics of last year's campaign. Some Republican lawmakers and strategists have been advocating such a tack for weeks, privately urging Bush to go on the offensive lest Democrats gain the upper hand going into a competitive election year.

In an unusual release that reflected a White House acutely preoccupied with the Democrats' charges, press secretary Scott McClellan harshly criticized Kennedy's reaction to Bush's remarks.

It is regrettable that Senator Kennedy "has found more time to say negative things about President Bush than he ever did about Saddam Hussein," McClellan said in a statement hours after the speech.

Bush used the address to give an unusually detailed explanation and justification of his policy for fighting terrorism, peppered with characteristically fiery flourishes designed to stoke the patriotism of a sympathetic audience.

"We will never back down, we will never give in, we will never accept anything less than complete victory," Bush said, to loud applause, hoots and whistles.

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