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Congressional Democrats Criticize Bush Speech


Congressional Democrats say President Bush's speech Thursday was long on rhetoric and short on specifics about how the administration plans to reach its goals in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Minority Democrats in Congress were quick to criticize Mr. Bush's address, including Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"The president said Iraq is the central front in the war on terror," said Mr. Reed. "It is the central front because he made it the central front. There were no extensive training camps for militants in Iraq before we arrived."

Democrats said Mr. Bush's speech was full of generalities about the war in Iraq, but it fell short of laying out a specific plan for achieving success there.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.

"How many Iraqi battalions need to be ready for battle before the first American soldier can come home," said Mr. Durbin. "Why have we failed to prepare more Iraqi soldiers to protect their own country despite the commitment and all the rhetoric we supposedly have heard and seen over the last year or two?"

Senator Durbin was referring to an assessment from Pentagon officials, who told Congress last week that only one of Iraq's 100 battalions is able to fight without U.S. support. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, says the number is down from three battalions, because standards for the highest readiness rating have become more rigorous during the past few months.

Senator Durbin also wanted the president to discuss the progress of reconstruction in Iraq, in terms of how much electricity and clean water have been restored to Iraqi homes and businesses.

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, said he is disappointed Mr. Bush did not discuss plans to secure political success in Iraq, with Iraqis to vote on a new constitution in a referendum on October 15.

"We still do not know what the plan is to overcome deep Sunni hostility to the constitution and reconcile the growing sectarian differences that threaten to divide Iraq, not unite it," said Mr. Biden.

Senator Biden wondered how Mr. Bush could claim progress in Iraq with questions remaining about prospects for Iraqi unity, a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal, and a plan to move reconstruction projects forward.

"In each of these areas, Iraqis today as I speak, are worse off than they were before the war," he added.

On the issue of the war on terrorism, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the war in Iraq diverted U.S. attention away from the search for Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"If we had stayed focused in Afghanistan from the start we might have been farther along in the fight against terror than we are because he diverted our resources into Iraq," she noted.

Senator Reed of Rhode Island said Iraq has also been a problem for the administration's plans to promote democracy around the world.

"The president talked about ultimately advancing democracy as the antidote to this jihadist approach to the world. Iraq is complicating our ability to do just that. When Turkish women's rights advocates berate Karen Hughes in Turkey about our position in Iraq, that is not a sign that we are making progress with those people with whom we need to make progress," said Mr. Reed.

Senator Reed was referring to Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, who recently met with a Turkish women's rights group in Istanbul as part of a regional tour aimed at improving the U.S. image overseas. The women activists used the meeting to express their anger over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Senator Reed said he was also disappointed that Mr. Bush's speech fell short in proposing concrete ways to counter Islamic extremism. For example, he said, the administration has offered no proposals to provide alternatives to madrassas, Islamic schools which have often been linked to militant groups.

While Democrats were critical of the speech, Republicans welcomed it. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said the President should have delivered it a few years ago.

Mr. Bush's speech comes as public opinion polls show most Americans disapproving of the way he is handling the war in Iraq.