Tue, Nov 22, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Cheney, Rumsfeld go on offense

MEET THE PRESS While the US president is touring Asia, his vice president and defense secretary are countering calls for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq

AP , WASHINGTON

US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, disagreeing with a congressman who calls for pulling US troops from Iraq, is not budging from the White House position that senior commanders know best.

Troop levels will remain at 160,000 as Iraqis prepare for elections on Dec. 15, Rumsfeld said, and will return to a baseline strength of 130,000 when the commanders there determine that conditions on the ground warrant a drawdown.

With the administration of President George W. Bush sharply countering the critics of its war policies, Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday delivered another speech defending the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.

Last week, Cheney dismissed allegations that prewar intelligence had been manipulated as "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

The debate turned more bitter after Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called for Bush to remove troops from Iraq within six months.

Republicans said that Murtha's position was one of abandonment and surrender, and suggested the decorated Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and like-minded politicians were acting cowardly.

The White House first responded to Murtha's statement with ire. Spokesman Scott McClellan linked Murtha, a longtime supporter of the military who had backed the war, to maverick filmmaker Michael Moore and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

Bush, who is returning yesterday from a tour of Asia, later eased up on the criticism, praising Murtha as "a fine man."

"The enemy hears a big debate in the United States, and they have to wonder: `Maybe all we have to do is wait and we'll win. We can't win militarily.' They know that. The battle is here in the United States," Rumsfeld said on Fox News Sunday.

Arguments over pulling out troops immediately, he added, may lead Americans serving in Iraq to question "whether what they're doing makes sense."

"We have to all have the willingness to have a free debate, but we also all have to have the willingness to understand what the effects of our words are," Rumsfeld said on ABC's This Week.

Murtha was not backing off on Sunday, when the US death toll in Iraq climbed past 2,090.

"There's no question we're going in the wrong direction and we're not winning," he said on Meet the Press. "There's nothing that's happening that shows any sign of success."

Murtha predicted that most if not all US troops will be out of Iraq by the time Americans vote next November. Rumsfeld, however, said that leaving too soon would allow Iraq to be turned into a haven for terrorists.

Murtha said he believes Iraqis can take over the battle against the insurgents and allow US troops to move out of danger.

"We just have to give them the incentive to take it over," he said. "They're going to let us do the fighting as long as we're there. And, until we turn it over to them, they're not going to be up to standards."

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