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2 congressmen defend their trip to Iraq, still oppose U.S. attack

WASHINGTON—After a five-day trip to Iraq that drew harsh criticism from Republicans, two Democratic congressmen said Wednesday that they had every right to go there and speak their minds, and they still oppose a U.S. attack on Iraq.

Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington and David Bonior of Michigan, who returned from Iraq on Tuesday night, cited their military service in Vietnam to justify their visit to Iraq and to caution against war.

"We paid. We did our part," McDermott said. "Nobody is going to accuse us of being traitors to our country. A democracy is based on dissent and asking the right questions."

In Baghdad, McDermott had publicly called for Americans to take Iraqi promises at "face value" and said President Bush was "willing to mislead the American people." On Wednesday, McDermott conceded that perhaps he had overstated his case against Bush when speaking in Iraq, but still contended that the administration has not justified going to war, because it hasn't exhausted diplomatic options.

Critics have compared the pair's visit to Baghdad to actress Jane Fonda's trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War; conservatives ridiculed Fonda as a traitor for decades.

Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who spent six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Bonior and McDermott seemed to be "pro-Iraq."

"You can't go cavorting around with the enemy and be a great American," Johnson said.

The two congressmen said they supported Iraqi disarmament through the U.N. inspection process, but not a forced regime change there, which the Bush administration calls for.

"The purpose of our trip was to make it very clear to the officials in Iraq how serious the United States is about going to war. And they will have war unless these inspections are allowed to go unconditionally, unfettered and open," Bonior said. "(Weapons inspectors) did more disarmament in seven years than the entire Gulf War."

The congressmen visited schools, hospitals and UNICEF centers in Iraq. They said Wednesday that thousands of Iraqi children had died because of U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War in an effort to starve Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime of the money sustaining his weapons programs.

A new war not only would hurt the Iraqi people but also could harm U.S. soldiers, such as with the still-unexplained "Gulf War syndrome," said McDermott, who was a practicing psychiatrist before entering politics.

The pair also warned that a unilateral U.S. war against Iraq, without U.N. support, would send the wrong message to other countries, including India and Pakistan, which are both nuclear powers and frequently on the edge of war.

"If we accept the right to have first-strike capability anytime we don't like somebody, there isn't a country on the Earth that can't make the same decision," Bonior said.

Bush and leaders in the House of Representatives from both parties agreed Wednesday on a resolution that would authorize the president to take military action against Iraq if it fails to disarm.

McDermott reminded that then-President Lyndon B. Johnson took the similar open-ended authority that Congress granted him in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to escalate the Vietnam War, which resulted in the deaths of some 55,000 American soldiers.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., accompanied the pair on the trip but did not join them in Wednesday's news conference.

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(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

Jim McDermott, David Bonior.

Iraq

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