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Bush takes on critics of Iraq war

President says war is central to fight against terrorism

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President Bush shakes hands with veterans and active personnel following his speech Friday.

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TOBYHANNA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- President Bush Friday accused critics of the Iraq war of distorting the events that led to the U.S. invasion, saying Democrats viewed the same intelligence and came to similar conclusions.

"While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began," the president said during a Veterans Day speech in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania.

"Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war," Bush said. "They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein." (Watch Bush attack his critics -- 1:17)

"These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," Bush said.

The president also cited a Senate Intelligence Committee report issued in July 2004 that said the committee "was not presented with any evidence that intelligence analysts changed their judgments as a result of political pressure, altered or produced intelligence products to conform with Administration policy, or that anyone even attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to do so."

Senate Democrats are pressuring the committee to complete a "Phase 2" of the report that would focus on how the prewar intelligence was used by the administration. (Full Story)

A bipartisan panel headed by federal Circuit Court Judge Laurence Silberman and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb, also came to similar conclusions. However, that committee only examined the intelligence community's prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons programs, not how the intelligence was used.

Democrats respond

Democrats responded immediately -- and angrily -- to Bush's comments.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, responded to Bush's speech in a statement, saying that the commander-in-chief missed an opportunity to lay out "a clear strategy for success in the war in Iraq."

"Attacking those patriotic Americans who have raised serious questions about the case the Bush administration made to take our country to war does not provide us a plan for success that will bring our troops home," Reid said.

"The American people are demanding a comprehensive plan and the benchmarks by which to measure our success for the war in Iraq," Reid said. "The president's continued refusal to provide that plan does nothing to support our troops or their families."

In a statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, noting that a majority of House Democrats voted against the resolution that authorized the war, faulted the president for politicizing Veterans Day.

"On Veterans Day we should come together to honor those who have served in our Armed Forces. Instead, President Bush is using Veterans Day to try to bolster his political standing on the war in Iraq rather than honor our nation's men and women in uniform.

"The president does a disservice to the troops and the American people when he tries to silence those asking questions about putting our men and women in uniform in harm's way," Pelosi said.

Continuing the war

Bush reiterated his argument that the United States must continue to fight to prevent Iraq from becoming a failed state from which terrorists would launch attacks on other nations to implement their radical ideology.

Bush referred to a letter he said was written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2 leader. The letter, according to Bush, said the group's goal is to force the United States to leave Iraq, just as it had departed from Vietnam, Beirut and other engagements, after suffering heavy casualties. (Read a report on al-Zawahiri's letter)

The authenticity of the letter has been questioned by some terrorism experts. (Full story)

"They believe that America can be made to run again, only this time on a larger scale, with greater consequences," Bush said.

"The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity," the president said. "We must recognize the Iraq war as our central front against the terrorist."

If the terrorists drive America out of Iraq, Bush said, they could develop weapons of mass destruction, intimidate Middle East regimes friendly to the West, attack the United States and "blackmail our government into isolation."

"Some might be tempted to dismiss these goals as fanatical or extreme," Bush said. "They are fanatical and extreme but they should not be dismissed."

Comparing the terrorists to Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, Bush said "evil men obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience must be taken very seriously and we must stop them before their crimes can multiply."

Staying in Iraq

Bush also dismissed critics who say the U.S. invasion of Iraq has strengthened the terrorists.

"No act of ours invited the rage of killers and no concession, bribe or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder," Bush said. "Against such an enemy, there is only one effective response: We will never back down, we will never give in, we will never accept anything less than complete victory."

The president said the U.S. forces -- along with Iraqi partners -- are implementing a strategy he described as "clear, hold and build."

"We're working to clear areas from terrorist control, to hold those areas securely, and to build lasting democratic Iraqi institutions through an increasingly inclusive political process."

About 2,500 people had been expected to attend the event, including veterans and their families and members of the state's congressional delegation.

The speech was meant to "directly take on some of these false attacks that have been recently brought up by some Democratic leaders," a White House official said Thursday.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters Thursday that the thrust of Bush's speech "is to continue to talk to the American people about the war on terror, the nature of the enemy, what is at stake (and) the importance that we see it through to success."

'Campaign-style' strategy

Earlier this week, senior White House officials told CNN they were working on a "campaign-style" strategy to respond to stepped-up Democratic criticism that Bush officials manipulated intelligence in making the case for war, an accusation the administration repeatedly has denied.

The intelligence debate intensified following the October 28 indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who resigned the day he was indicted.

Libby was charged with obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to federal agents investigating the leak to reporters of the identity of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame. Her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, had publicly challenged a key element of the administration's case for war.

In his briefing Thursday, Hadley detoured from the president's upcoming four-nation Asia tour to defend the administration's rationale for invading Iraq and to rebut charges that intelligence had been manipulated.

Hadley told reporters the intelligence used to support the war had been developed over a "long period of time."

2003 CIA report raised doubt

"We all looked at the same intelligence, and most people -- on the intelligence -- reached the same conclusion," Hadley said, referring to the present and previous administrations and to Congress.

Adding to the intelligence dispute is a January 2003 CIA report that raised doubts about claims that al Qaeda sent operatives to Iraq to acquire chemical and biological weapons. (Full story)

In January and February 2003, President Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made dramatic assertions that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda and argued for military action to prevent Baghdad from providing its suspected stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. (Watch: CIA experts question intelligence source -- 2:17)

Powell repeated the claim before the United Nations in making the case for the invasion of Iraq.

No such stockpiles turned up after the U.S.-led invasion, and the independent commission investigating al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on New York and Washington found no evidence of a collaborative relationship between the two entities.

CNN obtained a CIA document Thursday that outlined the history of the claim, which originated in 2002 with a captured al Qaeda operative who recanted two years later.

The CIA report appears to support a recently declassified document that revealed the Defense Intelligence Agency thought in February 2002 that the source, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was lying to interrogators.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, this week released the DIA report in alleging the administration cited faulty intelligence to argue for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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