WASHINGTON—President Bush softened attacks on war critics Sunday and his defense secretary signaled a coming troop drawdown, as the lawmaker at the center of a growing national debate on the Iraq war called for complete withdrawal by next November.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing during a state visit to China, Bush stepped back from his administration's tough criticism of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. The White House and some GOP lawmakers engaged in personal attacks on the decorated Marine Corps veteran after his call Thursday to bring the troops home.
Bush called Murtha "a fine man and a good man," and said although he differed with the congressman's position, "the decision to call for the immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, appearing Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," also praised Murtha as a "fine man" and said it wasn't unpatriotic to question Iraq policy.
Bush and Rumsfeld appeared to be trying to lower the temperature of the debate about a war that is increasingly unpopular among the American people.
"We know that and it's perfectly proper to have a debate over these things and have a public debate," Rumsfeld said. "We had debates during World War II, we had debates during the Korean War and during the Vietnam War and we're going to have debates during this war."
Those comments differed markedly from Vice President Dick Cheney, who had suggested critics like the decorated Murtha lacked "backbone," and White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who compared the usually hawkish Democrat to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.
If the Bush administration's intent was to lower the tone, Murtha sought to raise it. He went on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning and was unrepentant, repeating his call for a troop withdrawal.
"This is not a war of words. This is a real war, where people are getting killed. Fifteen thousand have been wounded and half of them are desperately wounded," Murtha said.
He suggested a change in Iraq policy was coming soon.
"Let me predict this. We are going to be out of there very quickly and it's going to be very close to the plan that I am presenting right now," Murtha said, saying troops would be home by next November's U.S. congressional elections.
Rumsfeld told the CBS program "Face the Nation" on Sunday that U.S. troop strength grew to 160,000 soldiers ahead of October's constitutional referendum but would begin coming down after Dec. 15 elections in Iraq.
"Oh goodness yes. We're clearly going to back to 138,000 after the election and as the president has said. As we keep passing off responsibility to the Iraqi security forces we have the prospect of bringing down the numbers of coalition forces," he said.
On the Sunday talk shows, Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs, said repeatedly that Iraq now has 212,000 security forces and that Iraqis are taking more responsibility every day for their own internal security.
But critics counter those troops after often badly armed, have difficulty moving around the country and are easy targets for murder by increasingly sophisticated Iraqi insurgents.
Addressing reporters in Beijing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned it would be disastrous to leave Iraq "before Iraqis are able to face the insurgency at least to the point that they cannot threaten the political stability of the country" and its neighbors.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.