WASHINGTON – Lawmakers in the House and Senate were prepared to argue President Bush's primetime speech on Wednesday, offering meetings to expound on the war in Iraq and progress being made there.
Sen. John Warner (search), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was holding a morning hearing to review the reappointment of Peter Pace to the grade of general and to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to replace Gen. Richard Myers. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House International Relations Subcommittee (search) on the Middle East and Central Asia, was having an afternoon briefing with Richard Jones, the senior adviser to the secretary and coordinator for Iraq, on that country's transition to democracy.
Also planning for Wednesday a press briefing to refute the president's remarks, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice-chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and Jack Reed, D-R.I., of the Senate Armed Services Committee (search), were set to discuss the situation in Iraq as well as criticize the administration for its expected shortfall in the Veterans Affairs budget for this fiscal year.
Warner gave high marks to Bush for his speech Tuesday night and said he would use his hearing to give a chance to send a warning to lawmakers and others who would speak disparagingly about the effort in Iraq.
"We need to knock off this business of quagmires" and saying who is a patriot and who is not, said Warner, R-Va., suggesting that the troops on the ground in Iraq are hearing filtered news that would suggest to them that they are not getting the support they need from some back home.
"I think we're going to take it very seriously to watch our rhethoric, those of us in Congress, and also members of the administration in their rhetoric to make certain what we say can not be misconstrued [or] in any way shows a lack of support," Warner said.
In his nightime address, Bush laid out an extensive check list of accomplishments in Iraq as well as goals to achieve.
"Our progress has been uneven — but progress is being made," Bush told a television audience as well as troops in the hall at Ft. Bragg. N.C., home to the the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division (search).
"We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America's resolve. We are fighting against men with blind hatred — and armed with lethal weapons — who are capable of any atrocity. They wear no uniform; they respect no laws of warfare or morality. They take innocent lives to create chaos for the cameras. They are trying to shake our will in Iraq — just as they tried to shake our will on September 11, 2001. They will fail," he said.
Bush argued that Iraq is the latest battlefield in the War on Terror and cited comments made by Usama bin Laden that the war will be fought and won or lost in Iraq.
"Among the terrorists, there is no debate," Bush said. "Hear the words of Usama bin Laden: 'This Third World War … is raging' in Iraq. 'The whole world is watching this war.' He says it will end in 'victory and glory or misery and humiliation,'" Bush said.
The president's remarks came after public opinion have shown lagging support for the mission in Iraq and a fatigue from news of daily terror attacks aimed at the Iraqi people and coalition troops.
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken earlier this month found that Iraq was by far the issue Americans considered the most important for the federal government to address. In the poll, 25 percent cited Iraq and Saddam Hussein as the top issue; the No. 2 issue was the economy with 13 percent listing it as the most important.
In the poll, Bush had the approval of 48 percent of Americans while 43 percent disapproved of his job performance.
Several lawmakers stated prior to the president's speech that they wanted to hear about concrete steps to be taken in securing Iraq so that U.S. soldiers and sailors can plan to leave. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill and some Republicans have urged the president to develop a timetable for beginning a withdrawal.
Some of those critics were quick to repeat their charges shortly before and after the president's speech. Among them, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized Bush for not outlining benchmarks and timetables to be reached to measure progress in Iraq, and she accused the president of trying to exploit the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for political gain.
"The president's frequent references to the terrorist attacks of September 11 show the weakness of his arguments. He is willing to exploit the sacred ground of 9/11, knowing that there is no connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"Iraq is now what it was not when the war began — a magnet for terrorism — because the president invaded Iraq with no idea of what it would take to secure the country after Baghdad fell. The insurgency took root in the unstable conditions that have now existed in substantial parts of Iraq for far too long," she said.
"In his attempt to mitigate growing concern about his disastrous Iraq policy, the president has failed to address the most significant problems surrounding this ill-conceived, poorly planned and falsely-justified war," added Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., in a written statement.
Former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (search) took a more measured approach in his criticism, saying on the strategic level, the president recited some points that needed to be said but Bush left several questions unresolved.
"He didn't really explain why car bombings have gone up despite our effective operations or why the insurgents are coming in increasing numbers or why the insurgency is still the same strength. These are all the elements that create doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the American public," Clark said.
"I said this was an elective war ... Saddam wasn't a part of 9/11, Saddam didn't have WMD to threaten America, but now that we're there, we have to succeed," Clark said, adding that the war in Iraq is a great recruiting tool for terrorists who want to suggest America is the evil invader.
Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., said that many of the terrorists are coming from outside Iraq and are very persistent. That, he said, is all the more reason for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.
"I think the president laid out a clear exit strategy, and that is when the Iraqis are able to take on their security responsibilities without the United States, which we are making progress on. Agonizingly slow? Yes. Did we make mistakes? Yes, but we've got our best general in the Army, General Petraeus, his training program, we are gradually succeeding in attaining that goal. The key to it is not the time and date of withdrawal, it's American casualties. When the Iraqi forces can assume all responsibilities, security responsibilites, then I think you will see a successful strategy implemented and that's really what it's all about and we can not cut and run."
Responding to calls to bring the troops home, Bush said he recognized that Americans want them to return as soon as possible, but that a premature withdrawal will only invigorate terrorists and demoralize Iraqis.
"Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis — who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done. It would send the wrong message to our troops — who need to know that we are serious about completing the mission they are risking their lives to achieve. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy — who would know that all they have to do is to wait us out. We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed — and not a day longer," he said.
CBS, NBC and FOX relented in their decisions not to carry the speech and joined ABC as well as the cable news channels to carry the president's message in a nearly 30-minute address aimed at driving home the objectives of the mission and reinforcing the administration's commitment to bring stability and freedom to the Mideast nation.
FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.(search)