White House signals softer tone

Seeking to temper Iraq rhetoric, Cheney praises Murtha but slams `revisionism' in Senate


WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney sought yesterday to tamp down what has become a bitter and personal fight in Washington over the Iraq war, offering praise for a senior House Democrat who has called for the full withdrawal of troops and saying that an "energetic debate" over the war was part of a healthy society.

But at the same time, Cheney offered fresh attacks on Democratic senators who have accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the threat of Iraq's weapons programs in order to build support for the invasion. He called those accusations "dishonest and reprehensible."

"American soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq go out every day into some of the most dangerous and unpredictable conditions. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a few politicians are suggesting these brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood," Cheney said in an address to a conservative think tank. "This is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety. It has no place anywhere in American politics, much less in the United States Senate."

Still, even while calling those accusations "not legitimate," Cheney's speech signaled a softer tone from the White House. It came as members of both parties sought to step back from the name-calling that erupted last week after Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha, a former Marine who is respected in both parties for his leadership on military affairs, dropped his support for the war Thursday and called for an immediate, phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The White House had initially attacked the Pennsylvania congressman, issuing a statement that associated him with liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and "the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."

But in his speech yesterday, Cheney called Murtha "a good man, a Marine, a patriot." And Murtha, who last week had said pointedly that Cheney used deferments to avoid service in Vietnam, amended his own comments, saying on CNN: "I said that heated, and I feel bad about that actually, because, you know, Dick Cheney - he was in Congress for 10 years. He really has served this country. And he's been a public servant when he would have been making a lot more money outside."

Cheney, in arguing that "disagreement, argument and debate" over the war were welcome but that claims that Bush misled the nation were "not legitimate," appeared to be signaling that the White House wanted to quell some of the bitterness of the Iraq debate while still aggressively responding to attacks on Bush's truthfulness, which public opinion surveys say has come under new skepticism.

"The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight, but any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false," Cheney said. Quoting Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, he continued: "It is a lie to say that the president lied to the American people."

The Democratic emphasis on prewar intelligence has returned some of the spotlight to Cheney, because it was the vice president who often led the way in making the case that Saddam Hussein presented a threat to the United States. Shortly before the war began, for example, he claimed on NBC's Meet the Press that the administration believed that the Iraqi leader "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." U.S. troops have found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The recent debate over Iraq has also shown that few Democrats support Murtha's call for a withdrawal. For instance, even as Murtha stated his case again yesterday, declaring on CNN that the war "cannot be won militarily," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Rye Brook, N.Y., that it would be "a big mistake" to pull troops out of Iraq.

"I think that would cause more problems for us in America," the New York Democrat told the Associated Press.

In one of many Democratic reactions to Cheney's speech, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada repeated the allegation that the Bush administration had "misused intelligence in its rush to war" and said Cheney had missed an opportunity with his speech to "come clean with the American people."

"By misrepresenting the facts, misunderstanding Iraq, and misleading on the war, this administration has brought us to the verge of a national security debacle," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday.

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the Bush administration to end its attacks on critics and start "answering legitimate questions."

Reviewing the course of the recent debate, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East criticized the "impatient" demands of politicians for positive results in Iraq.

Speaking to a small group of reporters at the Pentagon, Gen. John P. Abizaid of the U.S. Central Command repeatedly declined yesterday to directly address Murtha's call for an immediate withdrawal. Yet he said he was frustrated that there seemed to be less patience for the Iraq mission inside the Beltway than in the rest of the country.

"When I talk to civilian audiences, I don't detect the same degree of impatience," Abizaid said.

He said he was optimistic that next year the U.S. military would be able to shift a larger burden of the counterinsurgency mission to a growing Iraqi army and that the continuing elections would install a permanent government that could stabilize a fractured political system inside the country.

Although some U.S. commanders have stated recently that they expect a significant drawdown of U.S. forces after the December elections, Abizaid declined to provide any details about plans for a troop reduction.

Edwin Chen writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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