Cheney back in spotlight

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON --Vice President Dick Cheney, lashing out at Democrats for the first time since his top deputy's felony conviction, resumed his controversial claims yesterday that the war in Iraq is the central front in the worldwide U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Cheney linked Iraq and al-Qaida even though post-invasion reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the presidential Commission on Intelligence Capabilities found no link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida before the U.S.-led invasion on March 19, 2003.

In remarks to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Cheney contended that U.S. Marines face al-Qaida operatives in Anbar province, the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown has unmasked al-Qaida car bomb operations in Baghdad and Osama bin Laden has vowed to make Baghdad the capital of a radical Islamic empire arching from Indonesia to Spain.

"As we get farther away from 9/11, I believe there is a temptation to forget the urgency of the task that came to us that day, and the comprehensive approach that's required to protect this country against an enemy that moves and acts on multiple fronts," Cheney told the annual conference of the pro-Israeli advocacy group, which interrupted his speech at least 27 times with applause.

"Iraq's relevance to the war on terror simply could not be more plain," Cheney said. Al-Qaida terrorists have made Iraq "the central front" in the U.S. war against terrorism, he said.

The four-year U.S. invasion, occupation and counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq have claimed the lives of at least 3,193 U.S. military personnel, wounded 23,785 others and cost taxpayers more than $400 billion.

Cheney spoke as part of the public relations offensive to win congressional support for President Bush's decision to send at least 26,100 additional U.S. combat and support troops to Iraq to try to stem bloodshed in Baghdad and Anbar province.

The administration also seeks congressional approval of an additional $100 billion to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cheney has long contended that the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years ago this month was justified in part because of suspected ties between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

Cheney also had cited alleged ties between Hussein and an al-Qaida operative, Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But a 148-page report released by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee in September showed that U.S. intelligence agencies disagreed with Bush administration claims of ties between Hussein and al-Qaida.

A 618-page report produced by the bipartisan 10-member panel named by Bush and led by federal appeals court Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat, also found no evidence of a pre-war connection between Iraq and al-Qaida.

Cheney's hard-hitting remarks represented a symbolic rejoinder to some critics' contention - and some Democrats' hopes - that the vice president might be sidelined by the federal felony conviction of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, last week.

"When members of Congress pursue an anti-war strategy that's been called slow bleed, they're not supporting the troops, they're undermining them," Cheney said. "When members of Congress speak not of victory but of time limits, deadlines or other arbitrary measures, they're telling the enemy simply to watch the clock and wait us out."

Cheney spoke six days after Libby, his former chief of staff and national security adviser, was convicted for obstruction and false statements.

Libby, facing sentencing June 5, ran afoul of a special prosecutor's investigation into an effort by Cheney to smear a prominent anti-Iraq war critic who raised questions about Bush's effort to justify the Iraq invasion with claims that Saddam Hussein tried to buy nuclear weapons materials in Africa.

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