Democrats keep heat on Bush after plea for Iraq aid

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The Independent US

President George Bush's uncompromising demands for help from home and abroad with the rebuilding of Iraq received a tepid response from America's allies, and some withering criticism from Democrats seeking to challenge him in 2004.

There is little doubt that Congress will grant Mr Bush the $87bn (£54.8bn) he is requesting for Iraq and Afghanistan even though this is even more than expected, and certain to push next year's budget deficit close to $600bn - an all-time record.

Howard Dean, whose emergence as Democratic front-runner owes much to his opposition to the Iraq invasion, called Mr Bush's speech "nothing short of outrageous". The government, he declared, "is again feeding misinformation to the American people to justify an enormous commitment of US troops." But he agreed that the country must now make the best of a bad job - and enlist international support in rebuilding Iraq.

America needed the help "of all the people we insulted on the way into Iraq," the former Vermont governor said. But, he stressed, "failure is not an option". However, the outside world was showing no great eagerness to assist in providing the extra multinational division Mr Bush requested in Sunday's 18-minute prime-time speech. Germany, a leading opponent of the war, said it had "no plans" to become militarily engaged, while many other potential donors will wait to see how much authority the US is prepared to cede to the United Nations before making up their minds. Surprisingly though, the most positive response came from France, nemesis of US and British efforts to secure a new Security Council resolution in March.

Calling Mr Bush's speech "unquestionably good news for us ... as well as for Iraq and the Iraqi people", the French European Affairs Minister Noëlle Lenoir said it could pave the way for a deal on a new resolution. Washington would ideally like approval before the President travels to New York to address the UN General Assembly in two weeks time.

In style, Mr Bush's sombre, slightly hesitant performance could not have been more different from his last prime-time address on Iraq - the swaggering show aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May when he declared an end to major combat operations.

In reality, however, the President threw few morsels to critics, both domestic and foreign, who had hoped for concessions or a note of contrition. Though he acknowledged some countries had not agreed with the decision to go to war, he declared that the international community now had the "responsibility" and "duty" to help put Iraq to rights.

Mr Bush made just one cursory reference to the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were the justification for the invasion.

Instead, he presented the toppling of Saddam Hussein as part of the justification for the war against terrorism. "The terrorists ... want us to leave Iraq before our work is done, they want to shake the will of the civilised world," Mr Bush said. But critics say that only by sending in US troops has he made Iraq a magnet for terrorists who would never otherwise have gone there. The President did not offer a timetable for US withdrawal but said creating a stable Iraq would "take time and require sacrifice".

Thus far however, with an election only 14 months off and his own popularity falling to the barely 50 per cent he experienced before 11 September, Mr Bush is loath to spell out what those sacrifices might be.

Yesterday White House officials said Mr Bush intends to make his two rounds of tax cuts permanent, despite the massive 2004 deficit. But though the $87bn request will almost certainly go through, fiscal hawks will demand offsetting action to keep the deficit under control.

Even a partial tax rollback will require compensating spending cuts which, when most states are strapped for cash, will eat into education, welfare and health care programmes, and provide further ammunition for the Democrats.

* A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that accused Halliburton and the Vice President Dick Cheney, its former chief executive, of misleading investors by changing the way the company counted revenue from construction projects. The lawsuit was filed last year by Judicial Watch on behalf of three small investors but US District Judge Sam A Lindsay said Judicial Watch didn't present proof of its claims.