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Rice defends decision to go to war in Iraq

Democrats question timing of showdown-state speeches

Condoleezza Rice speaks at a luncheon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Thursday.
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Condoleezza Rice
White House

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (AP) -- Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on September 11, but Iraq contributed to an atmosphere in the Middle East that promoted terrorism, the White House national security adviser said Thursday.

The United States once viewed acts of terrorism too narrowly, and had to invade Iraq to disrupt terrorism in the Middle East that had gone unchecked, Condoleezza Rice told the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

"While Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the actual attacks on America, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a part of the Middle East that was festering and unstable ... was part of the circumstances that created the problem on September 11," Rice said.

The price of the war, both in lives and dollars, must be endured to create a permanent peace, said Rice, who repeatedly defended the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Rice said she did not know if there are more terrorists operating in Iraq today than before the war, but said the U.S. invasion is not the cause if they are in Iraq.

She talked about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and is believed to be behind several beheadings in Iraq. The United States is offering $25 million for information leading to al-Zarqawi's death or capture.

"Al-Zarqawi was in Iraq well before the war and he knows the territory, so to speak," Rice said. "And of course, when we decided to challenge (the terrorists) finally, they come out, they come out to fight."

Democrats have accused the Bush administration of sending the national security adviser, a historically nonpolitical position, to stump for the president in crucial swing states.

President Bush was also in Pennsylvania on Thursday, his 40th visit to the nation's fifth-largest prize, with 21 electoral votes.

The White House contacted the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh over the summer to say Rice would be in the region and that an address to the group could be a "target of opportunity," said Schuyler Foerster, council president.

In a letter addressed to the council, a state Democratic organization urged the group to reschedule the visit for after the election.

"At minimum, having Dr. Rice at this point in the campaign is a naive error in judgment -- and at maximum, could be perceived as an attempt to influence the election," wrote Art DeCoursey, coordinator of John Kerry's campaign in western Pennsylvania.

Forester said he hadn't seen such a letter, which the Kerry campaign said was faxed to his group Wednesday, but even if he had, he would not have changed the date of Rice's address.

"I'm not going to shut down the council for six months and say I can't have publicly accountable officials address our members on key issues of national interest," Foerster said. "In past elections, you couldn't get anyone to care about foreign policy, but we've got a thousand people here today and I think it's a fair representation of the country out there."

Rice is scheduled to give speeches in Michigan and Florida over the next week. In recent days, she has appeared in Ohio, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington state. Until May, Rice had not made any speeches in states considered political battlegrounds. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, showdown states)

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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