U.S. congressional Democrats are stepping up their criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Their comments come on the third anniversary of a speech delivered by President Bush declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq, six weeks after the U.S.-led invasion.
President Bush delivered the speech three years ago standing on the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, beneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished."
Opposition Democrats recall that moment often when they criticize the administration's handling of the Iraq war.
The third anniversary of the speech Monday was an opportunity for them to renew their criticism.
"The image of President Bush standing in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner has been etched in the minds of the American people as a metaphor for the Bush White House, its misleading and dangerous incompetence. It shows a self-described war president, not ready for the war, or the difficult problems of securing the peace, the problems the president's Secretary of Defense simply ignored, or did not understand following the invasion of Iraq," said Senator Harry Reid, the Senate's top Democrat.
Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts' Democrat, said President Bush, as Commander in Chief, has made mistakes every step of the way in Iraq. "He disbanded the Iraqi army with weapons intact, and then waited a year before training security forces. He failed to see the insurgency, metastasizing like a cancer throughout Iraq before it was too late. He failed to see the danger of roadside bombs, i-e-d's (improvised explosive devices), and sent our troops into battle month after month without the proper protection. Now he fails to see the very possibility that Iraq will succumb to a full-scale civil war," he said.
Democrats noted that 2,400 Americans have died in the war, that tens of thousands of others have been wounded, and that hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars have been spent on a mission that opponents say was not accomplished when President Bush delivered his speech three years ago, and has not been accomplished now.
They again called on President Bush to outline a strategy that will bring U.S. troops home.
With public opinion polls showing that most Americans do not support the President's handling of Iraq, Democrats hope to capitalize on the issue in congressional elections this year, even though Democrats do not have a unified strategy of their own on Iraq. All 435 House members and one-third of the Senate will be up for reelection in November.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan accused Democrats of trying to distract attention from what he called the real progress that is taking place in Iraq. "You've had three elections take place. Most recently, more than 12 million Iraqis showed up to vote for a democratically elected government that is based on a constitution they approved. Now you have a unity government in place, a government that has the support of the Iraqi people. And that national unity government is moving forward to put a cabinet in place, and moving forward to advance the political process," he said.
McClellan also took issue with a proposal put forward by the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, in which the lawmaker argued that Iraq should be divided into three autonomous regions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish, with a central government in Baghdad.
In an article in the New York Times, Biden wrote that the idea would be to maintain a unified Iraq by allowing each region to run its own affairs while the central government takes charge of common interests.
McClellan rejected the idea. "A partitioned government with regional security forces and a weak central government is something that no Iraqi leader has proposed, and that the Iraqi people have not supported," he said.
In a speech earlier in the day, President Bush underscored the importance of unified Iraq that represents all the Iraqi people.+