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U.S. senators debate wisdom of Bush's Iraq policy

WASHINGTON—As U.S. troops suffer mounting casualties and spreading resistance in Iraq, the Senate erupted in debate Wednesday about the wisdom of the Bush administration's policy there.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., became the second senior Democratic senator this week to declare that Iraq is becoming another Vietnam. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was the first.

Republican senators disputed the analogy, with at least two charging that such talk inspires Iraqi insurgents and heightens the danger they pose to U.S. soldiers.

The rising partisan bitterness over the war in Iraq is reminiscent of the Vietnam era, as is the falling public support for the president waging the war. Just 4 out of 10 Americans approve of how President Bush is handling Iraq, his lowest rating ever, according to a poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center. The growing disquiet in Congress and the country reflects a series of setbacks that U.S. forces have suffered in Iraq in recent weeks, and the rising risk of failure there, which could severely injure U.S. global interests by inflaming radical Muslims everywhere.

Byrd noted that the U.S. military death toll in Iraq recently passed 600, and that most of them were "mere youngsters."

"But before they could realize their dreams, they were called into battle by their commander in chief, a battle that we now know was predicated on faulty intelligence and wildly exaggerated claims of looming danger," he said.

Byrd, famous for his oratorical allusions to history and literature, quoted repeatedly from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," especially the closing refrain "into the valley of death rode the six hundred."

Tennyson's poem decried blunders in the Crimean War, and Byrd said in invading Iraq "without compelling reason . . . and without a plan for dealing with the enormous postwar security and reconstruction challenges" has resulted in "our soldiers, our own 600 and more, who are paying the price."

Referring to reports that the Pentagon is weighing whether to send more troops to Iraq, Byrd said: "Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development."

One year and $121 billion after the fall of Baghdad, Byrd said, the Bush administration should be "working toward an exit strategy," not a plan to boost U.S. troop strength there.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, rushed to the Senate floor to deliver an impromptu rebuttal. "I happen to know something about Vietnam, and I know we don't face another Vietnam," he said. "It's a totally false comparison."

McCain argued that, unlike Vietnam, "we have the capability militarily and politically to prevail." Unlike Vietnam, he said, the enemy has no superpower backing and no neighboring country sanctuary. In addition, McCain contended, most Iraqis want democracy. Last, he said, "if we fail and cut and run, the results would be disastrous," with Iraq splintering into hostile parts and radical Muslims gaining victory.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., issued a statement criticizing those who raise the Vietnam parallel. "It disturbs me when I hear statements made by politicians in America ... that tend to incite the opposition and to put our men and women in greater harm's way," he said. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., made the same point.

Anticipating such attacks, Byrd in his speech criticized his fellow senators for failing "to take a hard look at the chaos in Iraq" because they have "blood ... on their hands" from having voted to give Bush authority to wage war.

"Questions that ought to be stated loudly in this chamber are instead whispered in the halls. Those few senators with the courage to stand up and speak out are challenged as unpatriotic and charged with sowing the seeds of terrorism. ... Questioning flawed leadership is a requirement of this government," Byrd insisted.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Iraq will become "another Vietnam" for the United States unless it transfers power to Iraqis who aren't connected with the U.S.-led occupation authority.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., endorsed sending more U.S. troops.

"Our troops on the ground in Iraq now are too few in number to battle the insurgents and establish the civil order needed to ensure Iraq does not descend into civil war," he said.

Coleman, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stressed that American credibility rests on meeting the June 30 deadline that Bush has set to turn over control over the country to Iraqis.

But Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, worried that the rising instability threatens the June 30 deadline and could lead to civil war. "I don't think there is any other alternative" than to put off the handover if instability continues, Roberts said.

Congressional leaders said they would support any increase in troop levels that Pentagon may ask for, saying that is a decision best made by commanders on the ground, not politicians in Washington.

"We have a lot of buck privates who are playing, you know, four-star generals here in the United States Senate," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. One lesson from Vietnam, he said, is "we shouldn't let politicians decide how to fight a war; we should let the war fighters fight the war."


(EDITORS: The Pew poll cited in the third graf was of 790 adults surveyed April 1-4 and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.