`Put aside our differences'

On somber day, Bush urges unity

Iraq war will shape century, president says

2001 - 2006 -- 9/11 -- Five Years

September 12, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, in a televised address last night, called the war in Iraq "a struggle for civilization" that Americans should "put aside our differences" to win, capping a day of hushed remembrances, tolling bells and wailing bagpipes on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

After a daylong tour that took him to the sites in New York's financial district, rural Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia where airplanes-turned-bombs struck that day, Bush said the war would "set the course for this new century."

"If we do not defeat these enemies now," he said, "we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons."

The president's words were designed to place him above the partisan fray for the somber occasion and help rekindle the sense of unity that followed the attacks. But they were also part of an election-year effort to reframe the bitterly partisan debate over the war in Iraq, which Bush linked directly to Sept. 11.

Contrasts abounded, five years after the terrorist strikes: from the streaks of gray that now dominate Bush's hair, to the reserved demeanor of a leader who once stood atop a pile of World Trade Center rubble with a bullhorn and boldly promised - in a seminal moment of his presidency - to avenge the strikes.

Bush stayed quiet and grim-faced through a series of heart-wrenching ceremonies, often with head bowed, returning to the White House to deliver a prime-time speech that lasted just over 16 minutes and summed up his argument that invading Iraq was an essential response to 9/11.

Referring three times to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and making a rare mention of the death toll of U.S. soldiers, Bush defended his decision to stay in Iraq.

"Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone," he said in one of only a handful of prime-time Oval Office addresses of his presidency. "If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened. They will gain a new safe haven, and they will use Iraq's resources to fuel their extremist movement."

Bush said his response to those who ask "why we are in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks" is that Hussein's regime "posed a risk that the world could not afford to take" after the 2001 terrorist strikes.

Bush's carefully planned day of prayer and comforting mourners was a brief respite from the bitter feelings that have come to be associated with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Democrats hope to use discontent over the war and Bush's leadership to defeat Republican candidates this fall.

Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the day's hardest-edged defense of Bush's policies, repeating his earlier suggestion that war critics would surrender in the face of grave threats.

"We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history's latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power," Cheney said after he observed a moment of silence at the Pentagon. His tone echoed his remark, in a weekend TV interview, that any suggestion that U.S. troops should withdraw from Iraq "validates the strategy of the terrorists."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, blasted Bush for his remarks, saying the president "should be ashamed for using a national day of mourning to commandeer the airways" with a speech defending the Iraq war.

Such confrontational words were largely absent from most public statements yesterday.

"We had an astonishing moment of unity in America and around the world," former President Bill Clinton said.

At the same time, former Clinton aides unleashed a barrage of new criticism disputing an ABC docudrama about 9/11, which the network interrupted last night for Bush's speech.

The program showed Clinton's administration missing or botching opportunities to capture bin Laden before he could strike the United States - an account that Clinton associates called defamatory and misleading.

Yesterday's remembrances were punctuated by flashes of the frayed nerves that have become almost commonplace. Authorities diverted a flight bound for San Francisco after finding an unclaimed wireless e-mail device on board. New York's Penn Station was briefly evacuated after someone spotted a suspicious duffel bag, which turned out to be filled with trash.

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, leaders of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, faulted the government for failing to implement many of their recommendations for bolstering the nation's defenses.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said that despite lingering vulnerabilities at the nation's ports and rails, "we are safer, and we should be pleased about that. But I hope we don't relax," he told Fox News.

"Today is not only a remembrance, but it's also a reminder," McCain said.

Around the country the grim unfolding of the attacks was marked with quiet moments.

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