WASHINGTON (AP) – President George W. Bush is invoking the memory of the Sept. 11 attacks victims killed five years ago to argue for a continued military campaign in Iraq before a skeptical American public, drawing protests from Democrats who say he has politicized a national day of mourning.
In a speech broadcast on Monday’s anniversary of the terror attacks, the president described a brutal enemy still determined to kill Americans, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction if they get the chance.
“If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons,” Bush said. “We are in a war that will set the course for this new century and determine the destiny of millions across the world.”
His address came at the end of a day in which he visited New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon to honor victims of the attacks that rocked his presidency and thrust the United States into a costly and unfinished war against terror.
Bush began with a two-minute tribute to the 2,749 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, but most of his 17-minute speech was devoted to justifying his foreign policy since that day. With his party’s control of Congress at stake in elections less than two months away, Bush suggested that political opponents who are calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops would be giving victory to the terrorists.
“Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone,” Bush said from the Oval Office, with a photo of his twin daughters and the American flag behind him. “They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.”
While Democrats have been using public opposition to the Iraq war to argue for a change of leadership in Congress, Bush’s address showed how he has been able to use the power of incumbency to command public attention and make his points. Democrats objected to the tone.
“The president should be ashamed of using a national day of mourning to commandeer the airwaves to give a speech that was designed not to unite the country and commemorate the fallen but to seek support for a war in Iraq that he has admitted had nothing to do with 9/11,” Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said in a statement. “There will be time to debate this president’s policies in Iraq. Sept. 11 is not that time.”
Earlier Monday, dozens of lawmakers from both parties put aside the campaigning and joined on the steps of the Capitol to remember the attacks. Together they sang “God Bless America” as they had five years ago. “Partisanship would have been the one casualty the American people would have accepted following 9/11, but it remains the one thing the president refuses to give up,” lawmaker Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic effort to win control of the House, said after the president’s speech.
Bush said Iraq is part of the United States’ post-Sept. 11 approach to threats abroad. Going on offense against enemies before they could harm Americans meant removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, pursuing members of al-Qaeda and seeking regime change in Iraq, Bush said. At least 2,670 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq.
“I am often asked why we are in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks,” Bush said. “The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat.
“America did not ask for this war, and every American wishes it were over. So do I,” Bush said. “But the war is not over, and it will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious.”
Although his administration has been criticized for trying to link Osama bin Laden to Baghdad, Bush made further comparisons between the al-Qaeda leader and Iraq. The president quoted bin Laden as saying the battle in Iraq is the “Third World War” that could bring America’s “defeat and disgrace forever.”
“If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden,” Bush said “our enemies will be emboldened, they will gain a new safe haven, and they will use Iraq’s resources to fuel their extremist movement. We will not allow this to happen.” Bush delivered a message to bin Laden and other terrorists who are still on the run. “No matter how long it takes, America will find you, and we will bring you to justice,” Bush said.