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Democrats step up criticism of Bush on Iraq

GOP dismisses 'politics'

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. John Kerry, a White House hopeful, is one of a growing number of Democrats who are increasingly critical of President Bush on Iraq.
Sen. John Kerry, a White House hopeful, is one of a growing number of Democrats who are increasingly critical of President Bush on Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, Democrats are stepping up their criticism of President Bush on Iraq, sensing what they believe to be a vulnerability in the administration's rationale for the war that ousted Saddam Hussein from power.

Democrats also are raising questions about continued U.S. casualties in Iraq, more than two months after Bush declared an end to major combat, and the continued occupation of the country.

"Now clearly it's time for the president to step forward and tell the truth, that the war is continuing and so are the casualties," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of nine Democrats seeking his party's 2004 presidential nomination.

In a critical speech, Kerry -- who supported giving Bush the authority to go to war -- criticized the administration for what he said was its neglect of diplomacy and planning.

"It's time for the president to tell the truth -- that we lack sufficient forces to do the job of reconstruction in Iraq and withdraw in a reasonable period," he said.

Other Democrats are raising similar complaints at hearings and news conferences.

"I voted to support the war in Iraq and want to do nothing that appears to undermine our president," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York. "But I feel that I cannot sit idly by and just watch the United States be bogged down in a guerrilla war in Iraq with more and more American casualties every day."

Republicans say the criticism springs from a Democratic desire to make some headway in the upcoming 2004 election.

"The Democrats have been playing politics," said Ed Gillespie, chairman-elect of the Republican National Committee.

Pelosi asks for plan

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested the administration has no clear idea of what it wants to do in Iraq, pointing to the continued attacks on U.S. troops.

"What is the postwar Iraq plan," she asked reporters. "If there is a plan, let's see what it is. If there is a plan, it may need to be revisited because it isn't working."

The mounting criticism is noteworthy because Democrats were relatively shy during the heavy combat and its aftermath about questioning Bush on national security matters. Their seeming reticence is wearing off; Democratic lawmakers are growing increasingly bold in challenging the administration's justification for the war and its long-term plans in Iraq.

There's some evidence that the public is growing concerned with Iraq. A CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll released June 30 found a drop in the percentage of Americans who thought the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, dropping from 73 percent in April to 56 percent in late June.

Still, Bush enjoys the trust of a considerable majority of Americans. In another CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll released at the same time, 75 percent of those polled identified Bush as a "strong leader" and 65 percent said he is "honest and trustworthy." While those numbers dropped a little from April -- when they stood at 80 percent and 73 percent respectively -- Bush's job approval rating stood at 61 percent.

The polls had an sampling error of plus/minus 3 percentage points.

Bush: 'Remain tough'

For his part, Bush is deflecting criticism of the postwar situation by standing behind his decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam's regime. He has said the effort to bring a stable and democratic government to Iraq will be a "massive and long-term undertaking," but has provided no timeline.

He has brushed aside questions about a now-retracted claim that Iraq tried to purchase uranium -- which could indicate development of a nuclear program -- and said there is no doubt that Saddam was a threat to world peace.

Speaking in South Africa on Wednesday, he criticized what he described as efforts to "rewrite history."

Thursday, Bush urged Americans to remain patient with the situation in Iraq, saying the coalition is "making steady progress" in stabilizing the nation, even in the face of security problems.

"We're going to have to remain tough," the president said.

Democrats, however, are challenging the administration's credibility on Iraq.

The Democratic National Committee has prepared an ad, accessible on the Internet, that assails Bush for his State of the Union comment in which he said the British government had learned that Saddam tried to buy uranium from Africa. The administration has since backed away from that report.

"Hold George W. Bush accountable," says the DNC ad, which calls for a bipartisan investigation into the pre-war claims.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN's "Larry King Live" Thursday, "too much is being made" of the claim made in the State of the Union address.

"Whether it should or should not have been in the speech is something we can certainly discuss and debate," Powell said from South Africa. "But it wasn't a deliberate attempt on the part of the president to either mislead or exaggerate. That's just ridiculous." (CNN Access)

CNN Political Editor John Mercurio, Senior Political Researcher Robert Yoon and Polling Director Keating Holland contributed to this report.


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