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McCain: 'Americans should argue about this war'

Senator urges debate on Iraq in address at Falwell school

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LYNCHBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- Sen. John McCain on Saturday said Americans should argue about the war in Iraq.

The Republican senator from Arizona weighed in the conflict that has killed more than 2,400 U.S. troops in a commencement address at Liberty University, the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

As a candidate in the 2000 presidential race, McCain had lambasted Falwell as an agent of intolerance. The former Vietnam prisoner of war, a potential presidential hopeful in 2008, has put aside his differences with the minister, who has large following among Christian conservatives. (Watch how McCain is mending fences with the religious right -- 2:52)

"Americans should argue about this war," McCain said. While he defended his support of the Iraq invasion, he said people must engage in debate on the subject.

"If an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I respect you for it. I would not respect you if you chose to ignore such an important responsibility.

"But I ask that you consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty."

McCain said Americans have more that unite than divide them.

"We need only to look to the enemy who now confronts us, and the benighted ideals to which Islamic extremists pledge allegiance -- their disdain for the rights of man, their contempt for innocent human life -- to appreciate how much unites us," he said.

"We have fought among ourselves before in our history, over big things and small, with worse vitriol and bitterness than we experience today," McCain said, adding "but let us remember, we are not enemies. We are compatriots defending ourselves from a real enemy. We have nothing to fear from each other."

While acknowledging the war's human and economic costs, McCain said that "should we lose this war, our defeat will further destabilize an already volatile and dangerous region, strengthen the threat of terrorism and unleash furies that will assail us for a very long time. I believe the benefits of success will justify the costs and risks we have incurred."

Besides the war, the senator touched on other big issues of the era -- the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, the Rwandan genocide from the last decade and the war on terror.

After the commencement speech, Falwell told CNN that if McCain "continues on the track he's on now, he in fact could co-opt the religious conservatives of the country, in the same way President Bush did, to help him to the White House."

"Anybody but Hillary," said Falwell, referring to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, the former first lady who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for president.

Falwell said that he and McCain argue "a good bit." "While we are both pro-life, pro-family, [on] a lot of things, like global warming and other issues ... we discuss pretty aggressively. But we do it as friends. And I very much respect the senator," he said.

He said McCain or others have a chance to gain the support of evangelical Christians if "he or she espouses the same values that we espouse,"

He also mentioned other "good people," such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee; Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania; and Sen. George Allen, R-Virginia.

CNN's Steve Brusk contributed to this report.

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