- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

President Bush yesterday cautioned Democrats not to engage in “irresponsible debate” over Iraq during midterm elections in November, asserting that partisan attacks will harm the U.S.-led mission and risk the lives of American soldiers.

In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Washington, the president said he will take on campaign criticism this year as Democrats try to take control of the House and Senate.

“There is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate, and it’s even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas,” Mr. Bush told VFW members.

Mr. Bush said Americans know the difference between critics who question the way the war is being handled “and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people.”

Mr. Bush mentioned no names, but his chief spokesman said he was referring to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, among others.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it was irresponsible for Democrats to claim, as Mr. Dean and Mr. Reid have done, that the president has no strategy for Iraq.

“The chairman of the party has made numerous irresponsible comments,” Mr. McClellan said.

When asked whether the president will continue to challenge critics as the 2006 campaign heats up, the spokesman said: “We’ll see if people continue to engage in irresponsible attacks. And if they do, we will take those on directly.”

Mr. Reid released a statement shortly after the president’s speech, criticizing Mr. Bush over recent news reports that U.S. troops have been forced to go into battle with unsuitable body armor.

“It is outrageous that while the president addressed the prestigious Veterans of Foreign Wars, he not only used our troops as a shield against legitimate criticism of his Iraq war policy, but also refused to address a Defense Department report that he and his administration failed to adequately protect our troops,” he said.

In his speech, Mr. Bush also urged Sunni Arabs, a minority in the country, to join in the democratic process, saying: “Compromise and consensus and power-sharing are the only path to national unity and lasting democracy.”

“A country that divides into factions and dwells on old grievances cannot move forward and risks sliding back into tyranny,” he said.

The president also called on all governments to follow through on promised aid to Iraq, saying that some of the $13 billion in proffered assistance has not yet been delivered.

“I call on all governments that have pledged assistance to follow through with their promises as quickly as possible, so the Iraqis can rebuild their country and provide a better future for their children,” he said.

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