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Gates, Rice Try to Firm Support for War on Terror

Hear NPR's Jamie Tarabay

The Bush administration on Friday launched a campaign to shore up support for the war on terror, a day after Congress handed the president a stinging rebuke by voting in favor of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said al-Qaida has become a "franchise organization" and that it was gaining a foothold in North Africa. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, echoed the administration's call for more time to see results from the troop surge in Iraq.

But soon after those comments were made, two of President Bush's fellow Republicans in the Senate urged him to draft plans to begin a possible troop withdrawal by the end of the year.

The proposal from Sens. John Warner (R-VA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) would leave it up to the president to order any pullout of troops. But it underscores the growing bipartisan opposition in Congress to the increasingly unpopular war.

Friday, the administration sought to deflect attention away from the Iraqi government's struggles and toward the United States' need to fight terrorism — in Iraq and elsewhere.

At a news conference with Gen. William Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Gates also told journalists that following the ouster of the Taliban in 2002, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants had been forced to operate in "primitive conditions," which had precluded "the kind of centralized control they had before 9/11."

As a result, al-Qaida units around the world had been forced to work semiautonomously, while continuing to receive strategic guidance from Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

The attempt to clarify Washington's thinking on the terrorist network came a day after President Bush disputed media characterizations that a U.S. intelligence report indicated that al-Qaida was "stronger than ever" and the House voted for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq beginning in April.

After the 223-201 vote for a Democratic proposal to force a U.S. troop withdrawal by next spring, Rice acknowledged in a round of television interviews that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has not achieved "as much progress as we would like."

The White House took the position that the House vote shows, "we have at least a cohesive position on our side for now," said the deputy press secretary.

"We are under no illusion, and we're very clear-eyed about the fact that we have a lot of work to do to talk to members of Congress, hear what they have to say," White House spokesperson Dana Perino said Friday.

Rice on Friday exhorted congressional critics of Iraq war policy Friday to give the Bush administration and the fledgling government in Baghdad until September to "make a coherent judgment of where we are."

"We shouldn't just dismiss as inconsequential the progress that they have made," she argued.

Rice echoed a more conciliatory tone adopted by the president in recent weeks, acknowledging what Bush on Thursday called "war fatigue" among the public.

"I understand people's concern. I understand people's impatience," she said. But Rice, who appeared on Fox News, ABC, CBS and CNN, said "we ought to stick" to the troop build up strategy that President Bush announced in January.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, a top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters via a video linkup from Iraq that "there will be consequences" if U.S. troops are withdrawn too soon.

"With the support of the American people, I'm convinced that we can continue to make progress," he said.

"What troubles me about this debate - and it is important and it needs to be debated, for sure - is it seems to me that we should first decide what we want the end state to be in Iraq ... and determine how we can reach that end state and how much time it will take," added Mixon, who commands troops in northern Iraq, including the violent Diyala province.

He enumerated several military successes - the number of militants captured, weapons caches seized, terrain retaken and so on. But he also acknowledged that much work remains.

Congressional Democrats, saying the war was draining U.S. assets from the fight against al-Qaida, moved Friday to highlight what they see as a major failure in Bush's war on terror: the inability to bring bin Laden to justice.

The Senate voted 87-1 in favor of doubling the reward to $50 million for information leading to his capture. The bill also would require regular classified reports from the administration explaining what steps it's taking to find bin Laden.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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