Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Rep. Mike Pence says he has seen firsthand how the back-and-forth charges in Washington over U.S. policy in Iraq are affecting troop morale there.

Mr. Pence, Indiana Republican, visited with Marines at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda this week. He was struck by one injured sergeant’s worry that the United States would succumb to criticism and pull its troops out with the job undone.

“He looked me in the eye, with tubes coming out, and he simply said, ‘Congressman, the only thing I worry about is that we will pull out early and we will not finish the job and it will mean all of the sacrifices we made over there were for nothing,’” the Indiana Republican recalled.

“I think [the criticism] is reaching these guys, from what they’re telling me.”

Since the end of major combat in Iraq, the Bush administration has faced questions about the intelligence the president cited in pressing his case for war. But Republicans say the criticism is politically driven and risks undermining U.S. policy.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, said one of the recent audio messages apparently from Saddam Hussein, in which the former Iraqi president said Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had based their case for war on “lies,” sounded like some of the statements from opponents of the U.S. leader.

“That particular construction sounds eerily familiar,” he said. “It sounds like Democratic National Committee talking points. There’s just no way of getting around that. It’s as if Saddam has picked up on the level of criticism in this country.”

Republicans said they fear Saddam’s loyalists will conclude that they can wait until the U.S. commitment fades, and then return to power.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Tuesday addressed the issue with editors and reporters from The Washington Times, saying pro-Saddam holdouts may be getting a boost “to the extent that they believe Blair and President Bush have been weakened in some way.”

A senior administration official said yesterday that the political wrangling back home “is certainly not positive” for U.S. forces in Iraq.

“Powell’s gone out and laid down a marker,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m going to let the secretary’s words speak for themselves.”

Democrats defended their questions, saying that once the decision to go to war was made they have remained staunch in their support of the troops and the rebuilding effort in Iraq.

In a phone interview with reporters on Monday, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said that when he had been a soldier in Vietnam, he and other soldiers “wanted people to know the truth” about what was happening.

“I think I’m speaking for the troops,” he said.

And Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said questions about the president’s failure to achieve a broader international consensus and about burden-sharing in the postwar operation are legitimate, especially given the $4 billion-per-month price tag.

Some Republicans also said they think the troops are doing fine despite the criticism and press reports back home.

“From what I hear from them over there, morale has been very good. It’s been mischaracterized by the press,” said Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, who served 28 years in the Air Force.

Morale may be getting a further boost. Military advocates and politicians have called for a way to reduce the burden on the troops who have been stationed in Iraq for months.Yesterday military officials presented a 12-month rotation plan to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Rep. Ed Schrock, Virginia Republican and a 24-year Navy veteran, said the deaths of Uday and Qusai Hussein at the hands of U.S. troops are bound to provide a boost to the troops stationed in Iraq, underscoring that their patience is paying off.

But, he said, it’s important for Americans “not to repeat Vietnam” by becoming impatient with the pace of reconstruction in Iraq.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said critical comments could hurt morale but that, for now, it’s still clear that a majority of Americans support the effort, so the effect is limited.

“It’s pretty clear that very few share that view,” he said. “But I think it could suggest to Europeans that if they just continue to stand against President Bush’s policy that somehow domestic politics could change and they could hurt him politically. I think that’s the kind of danger.”

Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said the politicization of the debate may hurt U.S. foreign policy.

“Traditionally both Republicans and Democrats leave politics at the water’s edge. A united front is essential for the U.S. to effectively deal with other nations and troubled regions,” he said. “The Democrats have broken that rule, attacking President Bush when our troops are abroad and hurting our relationship with our closest ally, Great Britain.”

But, Mr. Cantor said, the political attacks aren’t working and that Americans still are supportive of the president’s effort.

• Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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