WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney praised Rep. John Murtha on Monday, becoming the latest senior Republican to back off attacks on the pro-military Pennsylvania Democrat who called last week for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.
But Cheney kept the heat on critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, saying those who advocate a quick pullout are engaged in a "dangerous illusion" if they think that it will end terrorism or make America safer.
Cheney's speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a research center that's home to many neoconservatives who support the war, suggested that he recognizes that trashing Murtha—a decorated Vietnam veteran who's defended the military through 31 years in Congress—may not help Republicans in next year's congressional elections.
Last week, Murtha said the U.S. presence in Iraq was worsening the situation there and overstretching the military. He said it was time to begin bringing troops home. And he voiced disdain for officials who'd gotten "five deferments" impugning the character of war critics who'd fought in battle. Cheney got draft deferments during the Vietnam War, in which Murtha fought.
Monday, Cheney praised Murtha as "a good man, a Marine, a patriot," echoing President Bush's praise for him Sunday.
Cheney said that while he disagreed with Murtha on Iraq, "he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion." He stressed that he has no problem with honest debate over the war.
But he added: "What is not legitimate, and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible, is the suggestion by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence." He didn't identify any senators.
Cheney's praise of Murtha stood in contrast to last week's Republican assaults. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Murtha's stance was reminiscent of left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore and "the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
Some Republicans in the House of Representatives were more caustic.
During floor debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, said she'd gotten a call from a colonel in the Marine Corps reserve who's also an Ohio state legislator and conservative activist.
"He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do." After Democrats exploded in rage, she apologized to Murtha.
That was the turning point in Friday's House debate. Most Republicans who followed Schmidt praised Murtha, saying they respected him but feared his stand would send the wrong message.
After freeing himself Monday from any perception that he was challenging Murtha's character, Cheney laid out the administration's defense of the war again—and again conflated the war with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even though investigative commissions have concluded that there was no connection between them and Saddam Hussein.
"(T)hey attacked us on 9/11 here in the homeland, killing 3,000 people. Now they are making a stand in Iraq. ... "
"Would the United States ... be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden and Zawahiri in control of Iraq?"
" ... A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists."
But the war in Iraq isn't primarily with terrorists. Cheney didn't note that Iraq's insurgency rises primarily from ethnic and sectarian tensions among Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds, rejection of U.S.-led occupation forces, and loyalists to Saddam and his once-dominant Baath Party.
Cheney said this was "a time of real progress" in Iraq, citing a growing role for Iraqi troops and steps toward an elected government.
Democrats accused him of twisting the facts.
"In his speech today, Vice President Cheney wisely backed away from the White House's personal criticism of Congressman John Murtha. But the vice president continued the administration's irresponsible misrepresentation of the facts that led to President Bush's decision to invade Iraq," former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who headed the Senate Intelligence Committee during the Sept. 11 attacks, and John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal research center, said in a prepared statement.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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