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Long Serving Senator Becomes Leading Critic of Bush Policy in Iraq - 2003-05-24

One of the U.S. Congress' most vocal opponents of the U.S.-led war in Iraq has become a leading critic of the U.S. effort to rebuild that country. Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, became the oldest and longest-serving member of the Senate this year.

Bush administration officials, seeking to ease congressional concerns about what some lawmakers view as a faltering U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq, say life for the Iraqi people is slowly improving, and that the process of reconstruction and democratization will take time.

But Senator Robert Byrd remains skeptical. "Democracy and freedom cannot be force fed at the point of an occupier's gun. To think otherwise is folly," he said. "One has to stop and ponder: how could we have been so impossibly naďve, how could we expect to easily plant a clone of U.S. culture, values and government in a country so rife with religious, territorial and tribal rivalries, so suspicious of U.S. motives, and so at odds with the galloping materialism which drives the western-style economies?"

Senator Byrd is among Congress' sharpest critics of Bush administration policy, particularly on Iraq. He opposed going to war against a country that he believes posed no threat to the United States, a view he says was shared by many around the globe. "No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper," he said. "The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us. Our word is disputed. Our intentions are suspect."

Last year, Mr. Byrd scolded his Senate colleagues for approving a resolution that gave Mr. Bush the authority to use force against Iraq, saying they were relinquishing their constitutional power to declare war. "I am deeply disappointed that the Senate is not heeding the imperatives of the Constitution and is instead poised to hand off to the President of the United States the exclusive power of Congress to determine the matters of war and peace," he said.

Senator Byrd, a staunch defender of the Constitution, often pulls out a copy of the document from his shirt pocket to make a point. "I like to fight when I am fighting for the Constitution and for this institution. I will fight until I drop," he said. "I will fight until they hack my flesh to the bone. I would fight with every fiber in my body, every ounce of my energy, with every parliamentary tool at my disposal, and there are parliamentary tools at my disposal!"

Mr. Byrd has vast knowledge of Senate rules, and because of that, many Senators are reluctant to challenge him directly. He is also a scholar of the Senate, having written a four-volume history of the body.

The 85-year-old lawmaker marked his 50th anniversary in Congress in January. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, and served there for six years before being elected to the Senate, where he has been ever since.

He is proud of his record. "I have cast many votes, more votes than any Senator who ever lived in the Senate of this republic," he said.

As of Friday, his votes totaled just over 16,685, according to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

During his years in the Senate, Mr. Byrd served in a variety of leadership positions, including Majority and Minority Leader. He has been chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, of which he is now the ranking Democrat.

Robert Byrd was born in North Carolina in 1917. His mother died of scarlet fever, and his father gave him up before his first birthday. An aunt and uncle raised him in West Virginia's coal country. He married his high school sweetheart.

Last year, Mr. Byrd challenged an administration timetable for creating the Department of Homeland Security, a schedule he believed deserved more time. A reporter asked him why he was spending so much time waging what was clearly a losing battle.

He responded, "that question misses the point." He said "to me, the matter is there for a 1,000 years in the record. I stood for the Constitution, I stood for the institution. If it is not heard today, there will be a future member who will come through and comb through these tomes.'

Mr. Byrd's current term expires in 2006, and he says he is leaving open the possibility of seeking a seventh term in the Senate he so loves.