WASHINGTON – Democrats are criticizing President Bush (search) for raising the Sept. 11 attacks while he defends his plan to keep U.S. troops in Iraq (search) as long as it takes to ensure peace in the country.
The president, urging patience on an American public showing doubts about his Iraq policy, mentioned the deadly 2001 terrorist attacks five times during a 28-minute address Tuesday night at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Some Democrats accused him of falsely reviving the link that he originally used to help justify launching strikes against Baghdad.
"The president's frequent references to the terrorist attacks of September 11 (search) show the weakness of his arguments," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (search) said. "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."
Bush first mentioned the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center at the beginning of his speech, delivered at an Army base that has 9,300 troops in Iraq. He acknowledged that Americans are disturbed by frequent deaths of U.S. troops at the hands of insurgents, but tried to persuade an increasingly skeptical public to stick with the mission.
"The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001," Bush told a national television audience and 750 soldiers and airmen in dress uniform who mostly listened quietly as they had been asked to do.
"Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war," he continued. "Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them — to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home."
Bush said he understands the public concerns about a 27-month-old war that has killed more than 1,700 Americans and 12,000 Iraqi civilians and cost $200 billion. He said the sacrifice "is worth it and it is vital to the security of our country."
"We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand. So we will fight them there, we will fight them across the world and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won."
He offered no shift in course in Iraq.
"We have a clear path forward," the president said. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
Republican Sen. John McCain defended Bush's call to stop terrorism abroad before it reaches the U.S. shore in an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" program. He said those spreading violence in Iraq "are the same guys who would be in New York if we don't win in Iraq."
Bush's speech marked the first anniversary of the transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraq's interim government. The president cited advances in the past year, including the January elections, infrastructure improvements and training of Iraqi security forces.
Democrats criticized Bush for not offering more specifics about how to achieve success in Iraq along with his frequent mention of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The president's numerous references to September 11 did not provide a way forward in Iraq," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said. "They only served to remind the American people that our most dangerous enemy, namely Osama bin Laden, is still on the loose and al-Qaida remains capable of doing this nation great harm nearly four years after it attacked America."
Bush urged Americans to remember the lessons of Sept. 11 and protect "the future of the Middle East" from men like bin Laden. He repeatedly referred to the insurgents in Iraq as terrorists and said they were killing innocent people to try to "shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September the 11th, 2001."
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said it's because of the lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks that he opposes Bush's approach to keeping the troops in Iraq without any timetable for withdrawal.
"The U.S. military presence in Iraq has become a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists, and Iraq is now the premier training ground and networking venue for the next generation of jihadists," Feingold said.
In his speech, Bush rejected suggestions that he set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq or send in more troops. Bush said a timetable would be "a serious mistake" that could demoralize Iraqis and American troops and embolden the enemy.
He also said sending more troops would undermine the U.S. strategy of training Iraqis to be able to as quickly as possible take over the security of their country.
"Sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever," he said.