- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

PRETORIA, South Africa — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday rejected Democratic accusations that the Bush administration misled the public on Iraq, saying “we were not cooking the books” to justify a war against dictator Saddam Hussein.

“We weren’t trying to oversell the case,” Mr. Powell told reporters traveling with President Bush on his five-day tour of Africa. “There was no effort or attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in the administration to mislead or to deceive the American people.”

Mr. Powell called the latest round of Democratic accusations, based on the administration’s admission of a one-line error in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address this year, “overblown” and “overwrought.”

Hours before Mr. Powell fielded questions in South Africa about the run-up to the war, Mr. Bush in Botswana fielded questions on the aftermath, acknowledging, on a day when two more U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq, that the United States has security problems there.

“There’s no question we’ve got a security issue in Iraq, and we’re just going to have to deal with person by person,” Mr. Bush said during a press conference with President Festus Mogae of Botswana. “We’re going to have to remain tough.”

Democrats kept up their criticism yesterday, with one of their presidential candidates demanding that the administration declare Iraq as being in chaos and a congressman calling Iraq a Vietnam-like quagmire.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, challenged Mr. Bush to “tell the truth” and admit that the United States is losing control in Iraq.

“Clearly, it is time for the president to step forward and tell the truth that the war continues,” the White House hopeful said, blaming Mr. Bush’s “failed diplomacy” before the war for the “growing notion that America is an occupying power.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, said yesterday, more than two months after the end of major combat operations, that it was clear “we need to change course.”

“I can’t sit idly by and watch troops get bogged down in a guerrilla war in which U.S. troops are killed every day,” said Mr. Engel, a member of the House International Relations Committee. “We can’t get bogged down in a quagmire like in Vietnam with no way out.”

But retiring Gen. Tommy Franks, who directed Operation Iraqi Freedom, testified to the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that U.S. forces are “building momentum” toward restoring order in Iraq.

“Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone. His supporters are being rooted out. It will take time,” Gen. Franks said. “Our focus in Iraq has, in fact, changed from one of military destruction of a regime to one of providing security and humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people while helping establish a representative form of government.”

The president had said in his annual address to Congress in January, citing the British government as his source, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger.

Mr. Powell downplayed the importance of the uranium-purchase assertion, saying it played such a minor role in the U.S. assessment of the threat posed by Saddam that it was not mentioned in the secretary’s speech to the United Nations.

“Subsequently, when we looked at it more thoroughly and I think a week or two later when I made my presentation to the United Nations … we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore.

“It was not standing the test of time,” he added. “I didn’t use the uranium at that point because I didn’t think that was sufficiently strong as evidence to present before the world.”

Mr. Powell said the information had been sketchy, “but to think that somehow we went out of our way to insert this single sentence into the State of the Union address for the purpose of deceiving and misleading the American people is an overdrawn, overblown, overwrought conclusion.”

“We can chew on this sentence in the State of the Union address forever, but I don’t think it undercuts the president’s credibility,” he added.

Mr. Powell also pointed out that President Clinton had attacked Saddam’s weapons programs in 1998 based on similar intelligence.

“What did he bomb? He bombed for four days, in Operation Desert Fox, facilities that were believed to possess or were developing or producing weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Powell said. “The entire international community has felt over this entire period that Saddam Hussein had these weapons.”

In his press conference, Mr. Bush also sought to dismiss assertions by his detractors that ordinary Iraqis are growing resentful of the U.S. military presence.

“Having talked to Jerry Bremer, the man in charge of the civilian operations there, he believes that the vast majority of Iraqi citizens are thrilled that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power,” he said.

With an eye on that local sentiment, Mr. Bush emphasized that Saddam’s loyalists are the real enemies of Iraq.

“The more involved the Iraqi citizens become in securing their own infrastructure, and the more involved Iraqi citizens are in the transitional government, the more likely it is the average citizen will understand that once again the apologists for Saddam Hussein are bringing misery on their country.”

The president did not bring up the subject of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which have not yet been found, but he did emphasize other discoveries that he said could morally justify Saddam’s overthrow.

“I mean, we’ve discovered torture chambers where people, citizens were tortured just based upon their beliefs,” he said. “We’ve discovered mass graves — graves for not only men and women, but graves for children.”

Mr. Bush also emphasized the relatively short duration of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

“We’ve been there for 90 to 100 days,” he said. “It’s going to take more than 90 to 100 days for people to recognize the great joys of freedom and the responsibilities that come with freedom.

In his Capitol Hill testimony, Gen. Franks said U.S. forces are likely to be in Iraq for several years.

“I don’t know whether that means two years or four years,” Gen. Franks said. “I just don’t know.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat, said U.S. troops are “stretched too thin” in Iraq and that the United States is ill-equipped to make peace there without help from other nations.

“It is quite obvious that this plan after the war has failed,” Mr. Pascrell said. “I think the president has to come before the American people right now. He owes us an explanation as to what’s going on.”

Gen. Franks pointed to the 19 countries that have sent troops to help govern Iraq and a commitment from 19 more to provide assistance soon. Nonetheless, the Senate voted 97-0 for a nonbinding resolution asking Mr. Bush to offer a formal request for the help of NATO and the United Nations.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and co-author of the resolution, said the involvement of NATO will take U.S. troops “out of the bull’s-eye” of militant Islamists who resent what they see as “the Great Satan occupying a Muslim nation.”

James G. Lakely contributed to this article from Washington.

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