Bush under fire as Iraq opens bitter feud

Click to follow

The row over Iraq engulfed the White House and drove partisan debate to new fury as President Bush renewed his attacks on critics of the war, and his spokesman likened a respected Democratic critic of his policy to the liberal film-maker Michael Moore.

The venomous exchanges yesterday were provoked by the demand of John Murtha, the vastly experienced Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman and decorated Vietnam veteran, for an immediate withdrawal of the 160,000 US soldiers in Iraq, ending what he termed "a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion". His call, coming from one of the most hawkish Democrats in the House and an expert on military matters, created a sensation here. In a blistering response, Denis Hastert, the Republican speaker of the House, accused Mr Murtha of giving comfort to the enemy.

"They would prefer that America surrender to the terrorists," he charged, saying they had delivered "the highest insult" to American troops on duty abroad. That comment came after a stinging attack by Vice-President Dick Cheney on war critics, whose behaviour Mr Cheney labelled "dishonest and reprehensible". For Mr Murtha - a former marine and a long-time supporter of high Pentagon spending and a strong military - that was too much. He lashed back at "people with five deferments" - a reference to Mr Cheney, who never served in Vietnam after having his draft deferred five times, but led the US to war in 2003.

"I like guys who got five deferments and never been there, and send people to war and then don't like to hear what needs to be done," the Pennsylvania Congressman said.

Later Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, likened Mr Murtha to Moore, author and arch Bush critic who directed the ferociously critical filmFahrenheit 9/11. A comparison between the stolid, grizzled 73-year-old war veteran and the pacifist and polemicist film-maker strains credulity. But the fact it was made shows how ferocious the debate has become.

The arguing has utterly overshadowed Mr Bush's current trip to Asia and to the Apec summit in South Korea. It has, moreover, shattered the old convention that foreign policy arguments should not be aired while a President is travelling overseas.

Mr Bush himself weighed in again yesterday, saying he agreed with the Vice-President's language, insisting that Democrats who supported the war in the crucial Congressional vote of October 2002 but had now turned against it were "irresponsible" and hypocritical in charging that the administration had manipulated and distorted intelligence. "They looked at the same intelligence I did," the President said from Pusan, where the summit was held.

But senior Democrats dispute this, saying the White House had far more material available and had been highly selective in what it permitted them to see.

Adding insult to injury, the South Korean Defence Ministry announced yesterday that it planned to bring home next year around a third of its 3,200 troop contingent in Iraq. South Korea is the third largest contributor to the coalition, after Britain and the US.

The outcome of the debate now seems likely to be determined by the success or otherwise of the parliamentary elections in Iraq, set for 15 December.

"The eve of a historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists," Mr McClellan said.

If the vote goes well, and Iraq shows signs of stabilising, then Mr Bush should be able to regain control of the argument, analysts say. But if the violence continues and sectarian divisions deepen further, then pressure for a US disengagement will only intensify. Already more than 50 US military personnel have been killed this month, bringing the total death toll to at least 2,082.

In another sign of the political passions raised by the war, the Republican National Committee will begin broadcasting television advertisements in the home state of the Senate minority leader Harry Reid, saying that the Nevada Democrat is playing politics with the war in Iraq.

The 60-second spots, part of a national campaign by Republicans to counter the ever fiercer attacks on Bush administration policy, urge viewers to call Mr Reid "and tell him to stop playing partisan politics and stand behind our troops". But it may be too late for the White House to regain control of events at home. The Iraq issue is now spilling across the entire Congressional agenda, eating into Republican unity, emboldening Democrats and further sapping the authority of Mr Bush - whose approval ratings have sunk to an unprecedented 37 per cent.

This week, the Republican-controlled Senate did defeat a Democratic attempt to have Mr Bush lay out a timetable for withdrawal. But in a sign of the growing congressional impatience, Republicans and Democrats then joined forces to approve a statement demanding that the White House give a regular account of its handling of the war and explain on Capitol Hill how it intends to "complete the mission".

In a separate setback that underscores how a weakened White House can no longer impose its will, two dozen moderate Republicans joined with Democrats in the House to reject a $142bn (£83bn) spending bill. Republicans later tried to repair the damage. But they were forced to scale back proposed cuts in welfare programmes that the moderates opposed.