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Parties split on reaction to Bush speech

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• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Key Democrats said Wednesday that they were disappointed with the President Bush's failure to lay out a clear "strategy for success" in war-torn Iraq.

"The speech the president made [Tuesday night] could have been made one year ago, two years ago," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. "It really wasn't anything new. What we were looking for last night was for the president to take initiative for a strategy for success, with specific plans on what the milestones were so our troops can come home safely."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan disagreed with her assessment.

"The president talked about the three new steps we are implementing as part of that strategy to ensure that Iraqi forces are able to defend themselves so that our troops will no longer be needed," he told a White House briefing.

In his speech, Bush said the three steps were partnering U.S. and Iraqi units, embedding U.S. advisers with Iraqi troops and helping Iraqi ministry officials to coordinate antiterrorism operations. (Full story)

Sen. Russ Feingold, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the president's refusal to discuss an exit strategy is "playing into the terrorists' hands."

He said terrorists were now using Iraq as a training ground.

"Iraq wasn't even one of the 45 countries where al Qaeda was operating, according to the White House, after 9/11," said Feingold, D-Wisconsin. "Instead, we've allowed them to set up a base in Iraq, and now we use our soldiers there as targets for these folks."

"We need targeted attacks on terrorists, not being stuck in a land war," he told CNN.

Bush, speaking before a subdued military audience at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said "setting an artificial timetable [for withdrawal] would send the wrong message to the Iraqis," U.S. troops and "the enemy -- who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out. ...

"We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed -- and not a day longer," he said.

Republicans almost uniformly backed Bush's position. Sen. John McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN that Bush's speech was "eloquent" and "necessary," equating premature troop withdrawal with failure of the mission.

"The first risk of failure would be a setback for the process of democracy in the Middle East," he said. "It would also give great encouragement to radical Islamic extremists that are certainly present in many parts of the Middle East. Then a U.S. failure would eventually lead to terrorism coming to the United States."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., agreed.

"The president stepped up to the plate ... and in a very convincing way, I believe, said to the American people 'Look if we don't stop the terrorists where they are ... they're likely to come here in greater numbers.'"

Call for 'presidential leadership'

Feingold said a resolution he introduced in the Senate does not call for the timetable Bush so opposes.

"There are not just two alternatives -- stay there forever and cut and run," he said. "There's a rational alternative -- that's where we need presidential leadership -- how long will this last, what makes sense, what needs to be done in what order and when can the troops come home? That's how we can tell the world we're not trying to occupy Iraq.

"The president has it completely turned around."

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Bob Menendez agreed.

"We do not believe he outlined for the American people the benchmarks of success so that America knows how we are moving forward," Menendez said. "The president failed in that opportunity to paint for the American people a very clear portrait."

September 11 referenced

Bush did wave the specter of terrorist attacks on American soil as a rationale for staying the course in Iraq, referring to the September 11, 2001, attacks five times in his 30-minute speech.

An exasperated Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, said Wednesday that he didn't know why the president returns to the September 11 theme.

"I can't explain him or his policies," said Rockefeller, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I think it's a natural cycle: You go through the various scenarios that don't work, and then you go and start back at the beginning and see if the American people are willing to buy that. They won't.

"It's sort of amazing that a president could stand up before hundreds of millions of Americans and say that and come back to the 9/11, somehow figuring that it clicks a button, that everybody grows more patriotic and more patient," he said.

"It's not the way that a commander in chief executes a war. And that's his responsibility in this case."

McClellan said the president was not linking the attacks and the terrorists.

"What the president was talking about was that September 11 taught us important lessons," he said. "It taught us that we must confront threats before they full materialize, before they reach our shores."

The similarity of the 19 al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four airliners to the insurgents fighting in Iraq was in the mind set, McClellan said.

"These are the same kind of people," he said. "They are terrorists who seek to dominate the Middle East. ... And the president made the decision that we could no longer ignore these merging threats that we're building in the Middle East.

Still, one lawmaker said there was a connection between Iraq and the terrorist attacks.

Rep. Robin Hayes, R-North Carolina, told CNN "the evidence is clear" linking Iraq to September 11.

"Saddam Hussein and people like him were very much involved in 9/11," Hayes said. (Full story)

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