WASHINGTON -- Democrats kept up their verbal assault on President Bush and his national security team Friday over Iraq, while a new Pentagon report underscored the escalating violence there.
In a wave of statements, Democratic Party leaders targeted Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for casting the Iraq war as part of a broader war on terrorism.
"The Pentagon's new report today indicates that President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld's speeches are increasingly disconnected from the facts on the ground in Iraq," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement.
"Even the Pentagon acknowledges Iraq is tipping into civil war," Reid said. "Failed Republican policies have left America bogged down in Iraq, with our military stretched thin and less able to fight and win the war on terror."
Bush, in a speech to the American Legion on Thursday in Salt Lake City, said, "The war we fight today is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st Century."
Rumsfeld, in his speech to the Legion on Tuesday, cited the "strange innocence" in the period between World Wars I and II and the failure of Western nations to recognize the rising Nazi threat.
"Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal-clear," Rumsfeld said, explaining, "I recount this history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism."
Some Democrats, though, were sharply critical of Rumsfeld's suggestion that critics of the war in Iraq were engaging in appeasement.
Rumsfeld "wants to lecture everybody else," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He should be ashamed of himself. His stewardship has been a disaster."
Emanuel said House Democrats are considering staging a no-confidence vote on Rumsfeld.
The Pentagon's report on Iraq was noticeably more pessimistic than previous quarterly accounts that the Defense Department has sent to Congress. It highlighted civilian deaths, the rise in strife between rival Muslim factions and the growing role of death squads in Baghdad.
"Rising sectarian strife defines the emerging nature of violence in mid-2006," the report found, concluding, "Death squads and terrorists are locked in a mutually reinforcing cycle of sectarian strife."
Cheney suggested several weeks ago that the primary defeat of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who has supported the war, would "embolden Al Qaeda types."
Lieberman, now running as an independent in the race for his seat, was defeated by Ned Lamont, a critic of the Iraq war.
Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, said Bush has failed to deliver a winning strategy in Iraq.
"You can't trust Republicans to defend America," Dean said. "Today we only heard more of the same propaganda from a desperate Bush administration worried more about its party's political prospects this fall than about how to protect America and fight and win the real war on terror. It's results that matter, and the Bush White House and its rubber-stamp Republicans in Congress have not produced results when it comes to keeping America safe."
The charges and counter-charges over Iraq have more to do with political than military strategy. With the Nov. 7 elections more than two months away and poll numbers suggesting Democrats could overturn the GOP majority in the House, the role of U.S. troops overseas has become a primary focus.
Bush and Rumsfeld included references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in their American Legion speeches, and framed U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the war against militant Islamic fundamentalism.
Emanuel said Rumsfeld crossed the line into partisan politics during his speech.
"He gave it for political purposes," Emanuel said. "He's playing politics. One casualty that Americans were willing to give up after 9/11 was partisanship."
Rumsfeld spokesman Eric Ruff said there was nothing political in the defense secretary's comments.
"He was not accusing anybody of being soft on terrorism," Ruff said. "What he's saying is that terrorist networks pose a threat to the United States and the free world. The questions he's raising are questions that all Americans ought to be addressing. He linked that to those very clear lessons in history, and history tells us that you just can't ignore a problem."
Late Friday, Rumsfeld wrote top Democrats in Congress saying his recent remarks in Salt Lake City were misrepresented by the media, The Associated Press reported. Rumsfeld said he was "concerned" with the reaction of Democrats.
"I know you agree that with America under attack and U.S. troops in the field, our national debate on this should be constructive," he wrote.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune