US Vice President Dick Cheney, seizing on Democratic calls to pull out of Iraq, on Monday linked early withdrawal to the possibility of terrorist attacks in the US.
As Cheney and US President George W. Bush try to help Republicans keep control of the US Congress on Nov. 7, polls show public support for the war ebbing. Bush gets better marks for his handling of terrorism.
"Some in our own country claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone," Cheney told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno.
"A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be ... a ruinous blow to the future security of the United States," he said.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quoted from the same playbook on Monday night, telling the veterans' group that US foes would view an early withdrawal as American "faintheartedness."
He pointed to the Clinton administration's move to pull troops out of Somalia, a move he said led both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to see the US as weak.
Neither Cheney nor Rumsfeld used the word "Democrats," choosing instead the anonymous "some," but the vice president rejected the argument many have made that by invading Iraq in March 2003, the US simply stirred up a hornets' nest.
"They overlook a fundamental fact. We were not in Iraq on September 11, 2001, but the terrorists hit us anyway," he said, in a reference to the hijacked plane attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.
When Bush answered a question about Iraq last week by raising Sept. 11, a reporter asked him, "What did Iraq have to do with that?"
In his reply, Bush simply said: "Nothing."
"Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack," he said.
But prior to the US-led invasion, Cheney suggested that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague before the attacks. The bipartisan Sept. 11 Commission found no evidence such a meeting took place.
Rumsfeld also said on Monday that the US military could handle another war despite deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I get asked from time to time, `if your forces are in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the US military sufficiently stressed or strained that it really couldn't deal or cope with a problem in another part of the world,'" Rumsfeld told troops at an air force base in Nevada.
"The answer is no, that's not correct. We are capable of dealing with other problems where they occur," he said, answering a question about military options for the nuclear crisis with Iran.
"I feel comfortable ... our country is able to fulfill the responsibilities the American people expect of us and that the president is charged with," he said.
Rumsfeld warned potential enemies that the US remained ready to take military action to defend its interests.
"It would be unfortunate if other countries thought because we have 136,000 troops in Iraq today that therefore we are not capable of defending our country or doing anything that we might need to do," Rumsfeld said.