Cheney denies Iraq in civil war

WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney today said Iraq had not fallen into a civil war that insurgents were trying to incite, and predicted success despite the constant violence three years after the US invasion.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had earlier said on BBC television that Iraq was nearing the "point of no return" and had already plunged into sectarian civil war.

Cheney said "terrorists" like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, and others were trying to stop the formation of a democratically elected government in Iraq by violence such as the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra on February 22, one of the holiest Shi'ite sites.

"What we've seen is a serious effort by them to foment civil war, but I don't think they've been successful," Cheney said on CBS television's "Face the Nation."

Increasing public discontent over the Iraq war in which more than 2,300 American troops have died has helped push President George W. Bush's approval ratings to the lowest of his presidency.

Bush has repeatedly said that US forces will not pull out until Iraqi forces can take over security operations. He has started a new push to explain his Iraq strategy to the public, with the next speech scheduled for Monday in Ohio.

"We are implementing a strategy that will lead to victory in Iraq. And a victory in Iraq will make this country more secure and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come," Bush said on his return from Camp David on Sunday.

He urged Iraqi leaders to get a unity government "up and running," and added, "I'm encouraged by the progress." He ignored a shouted question about Allawi's civil war comment.

Gen. George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, said it was a "long way" from a broad civil war in Iraq, nor was one imminent or inevitable.

"But I don't want to sugarcoat it, either. This is a very fragile time, and there are people getting killed," Casey said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Democrats sharply criticized the administration's Iraq policies.

"I think that the political leaders in Washington have failed when it comes to our policy in Iraq. They misled us into believing there were weapons of mass destruction and connections between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. None of that existed," Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on "Fox News Sunday."

"Here we are, on the third anniversary, with no end in sight," he said.

Cheney said it was important for the whole region and the security of the United States that the insurgency in Iraq does not succeed.

"There's a lot at stake here. It's not just about Iraq, it's not about just today's situation in Iraq, it's about where we are going to be 10 years from now in the Middle East," he said.

"If they ("terrorists") succeed then the danger is that Iraq will become a failed state as Afghanistan was a few years ago when it was governed by the Taleban," he said. That had allowed Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network to launch attacks against the United States and its allies, Cheney said.

He said the "biggest threat" faced now was not another September 11 attack in which hijacked planes were used as weapons, but the danger of extremists having nuclear or biological weapons to use against the United States.

Cheney attributed the administration's "aggressive, forward-leaning strategy" in going after extremists since the September 11 attacks as one of the main reasons the United States had not been struck again at home.

"I think we are going to succeed in Iraq, I think the evidence is overwhelming," Cheney said.

- REUTERS

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