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US Lawmakers React to Intelligence on al-Qaida, Debate Iraq


Majority Democrats and opposition Republicans in the U.S. Congress focused on the fight against terrorism Tuesday as they debated the latest government report on the threat facing the country. As Dan Robinson reports, there is strong disagreement on the best strategy to keep the country safe and on how to deal with the war in Iraq.

Speaking after their weekly strategy meeting, Republican leaders cited the latest National Intelligence Estimate as proof that Americans remain a primary target of terrorism, and as justification for supporting President Bush's strategy in Iraq.

Roy Blunt, the Republican House minority whip says the report is the basis for concern not only about al-Qaida in Iraq, but its apparent strength in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"There is some discussion as to whether they are back at pre-September 11 levels. I personally don't think they are quite there yet, but I think we do have to be very concerned about any sanctuaries for al-Qaida that would allow them to fulfill the kinds of things that they recently tried to do in Great Britain and we have every reason to believe they are trying every single day to do right here," he said.

House Republican conference chairman, Adam Putnam, took a swipe at Democrats, said the National Intelligence Estimate demonstrates the extent to which our citizens remain very much a target of an enemy fueled by hatred and bent on our destruction, adding "this is certainly not the time for our resolve to give way to timidity."

The new National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, says al-Qaida remains determined to mount attacks on major targets in the United States, especially if it can acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Democrats used the report to focus on what they call President Bush's failed policies in Iraq, and the what they contend is Iraq's role in diverting attention from al-Qaida strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton said redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq would allow the U.S. to concentrate anti-terrorist efforts on Afghanistan.

Skelton announced a joint hearing of his committee and the House intelligence panel to focus on the resurgence of al-Qaida and threats posed to the United States.

On the floor of the Senate, Democrat Edward Kennedy said the intelligence report reaffirms that the war in Iraq has become a significant recruitment tool for al-Qaida.

"This has obviously made the war on terrorism harder, not easier to win. Nevertheless, the administration still continues to turn a deaf ear to all the voices calling for change," he said.

White House officials say the intelligence report shows the correctness of the president's approach in Iraq, as well as overall U.S. counter-terrorism efforts since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"The NIE reinforces the seriousness of the terrorist threat against the homeland and confirms much of what the president has been saying since September 11th. We are facing a persistent terrorist enemy led by al-Qaida that remains driven and intent in attacking the homeland and that continues to adapt and improve its capabilities," said Frances Townsend, White House homeland security adviser:

Meanwhile, a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee provided lawmakers another opportunity to voice concerns about Iraq, with Democrats and Republicans differing over the course ahead.

"Let this be a lesson to future generations that anyone entrusted with a leadership position can start a war [but] it takes a real statesman to end one," said Oregon Democrat David Wu.

Republicans Dana Rohrabacher said "We don't want to set specific timelines and dates to get out, but we do know that this cannot go on indefinitely."

"Given that this strategy has been effect only since June 15th, why are some so eager to pronounce it a failure and seek to force a premature withdrawal," asked Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Foreign Affairs panel chairman Tom Lantos said he is convinced the Iraq war cannot be won any time soon. He says the issue is no longer whether the U.S. gets out but, how and how soon.