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Rice: Premature US Iraq Pullout Would Cause Immeasurable Harm

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a war veterans group Tuesday that a premature U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq would cause immeasurable harm to U.S. interests. Domestic political pressure for at least a timetable for removing troops has been mounting with the approach of elections in November.

The Bush administration is using the conservative-leaning veterans group, the American Legion, to mount a defense of its Iraq policy, amid growing calls for a withdrawal timetable from opposition Democrats and even some Republicans in the run-up to the November congressional elections.

Addressing the organization's annual convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, Secretary Rice insisted the joint crackdown by Iraqi and U.S. forces against sectarian violence in Baghdad is showing some success, as are so-called clear, hold and build security operations in outlying areas.

The Bush administration has resisted setting any withdrawal schedule before Iraqi forces are able to handle security on their own. Rice told the veterans the strategy can and will succeed, and warned that if the United States quits before the job is done, the cost of failure will be, in her words, "severe, indeed immeasurable":

"If we abandon the Iraqi people before their government is strong enough to secure the country, then we will show reformers across the region that America cannot be trusted to keep its word," said Condoleezza Rice. "We will embolden extremists, enemies of moderation and of democratic reform. We will leave the makings of a failed state in Iraq like that one in Afghanistan in the 1990's which became the base for al-Qaida and the launching pad for the September 11th hijackers."

Rice said that terrorists in Iraq, if they are not defeated, would continue to attack U.S. interests, which is why, she said, President Bush has called Iraq a central front in the war on terrorism.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed the American Legion gathering earlier Tuesday and President Bush is scheduled to speak there later in the week.

In his remarks, Rumsfeld said the world faces what he termed a new type of fascism in Islamic extremism and likened critics of U.S. war strategy to those who tried to appease Hitler's Germany before the Second World War.

The defense chief questioned whether today's extremists can be appeased, and portrayed administration critics as suffering from moral or intellectual confusion.

The Rumsfeld remarks drew quick condemnation from leading Democrats. Senator Jack Reid said he took particular offense to Rumsfeld's suggestion that his critics are unpatriotic, and called the Secretary's address a political rant to cover up his own incompetence.