Thursday, August 31, 2006

Continuing the politicalization of the war, Bush launches push to counter Iraq war criticism

Bush launches push to counter Iraq war criticism
By Caren Bohan

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - For the third time in less than a year and two months before crucial U.S. elections, President George W. Bush is launching a new campaign to counter opposition to the Iraq war with a series of speeches he insists are not political.

The first of the speeches is planned for Thursday at the American Legion annual convention in Salt Lake City and Bush will continue the theme of the Iraq war and national security through mid-September, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

After a surge in violence in the past few months, Bush will acknowledge "that these are unsettling times," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. But he will discuss the Iraq war in the broader context of the war on terror, she said.

Democrats have pressed for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But Bush argues that a premature exit would embolden al Qaeda and leave Americans more vulnerable to another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Iraq has emerged as a top issue in the run-up to November's congressional elections. Democrats hope to win control of at least one chamber of Congress and many believe disillusionment with the Iraq war could boost their chances.

Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of politicizing the war debate.

Bush, visiting Little Rock, Arkansas, to raise money for Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, rejected any tie between politics and the blitz of speeches on Iraq.


"My series of speeches, they are not political speeches, they are speeches about the future of this country and they are speeches to make it clear that if we retreat before the job is done, this nation will become in even more jeopardy," he said.

"These are important times and I would seriously hope people wouldn't politicize these issues that I am going to talk about," Bush added.

Bush later hit some of his themes about the war at a fundraiser for a Republican Senate candidate in Nashville, Tennessee.

"The stakes in Iraq are high," Bush said, warning that a premature withdrawal would lead militants to "follow us here."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a similar case on Tuesday but took it a step further by likening war critics to those who argued for appeasing the Nazis during World War Two. He spoke to the same American Legion veterans Bush is due to visit on Thursday.

The comparison stirred outrage among Democrats.

"We Democrats want to fight a very strong war on terror," said Charles Schumer, a New York senator. "No one has talked about not doing everything we can to make sure we win this war on terror."

Bush's popularity ratings are hovering in the high 30 percent range, only slightly better than record lows earlier this year, making him a liability for many in his party. Yet voters give him his highest marks for his handling of the war on terrorism.

Perino said Bush's American Legion speech will explain the "roots of the ideological struggle in the lack of freedom in the Middle East" and emphasize Bush's agenda of trying to spur democratic change there.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria)