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Democrats demand accountability for setbacks in Iraq
Yahoo News/AFP
October 05, 6:08

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Democrats accused President George W. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress of an "information blackout" to keep the public in the dark about recent military and political setbacks in Iraq.

With recent debate over Supreme Court nominations and hurricane relief efforts consuming Congress for the past several weeks, Democrats have sought to refocus attention on Iraq, where a referendum is looming on a draft constitution, and where former dictator Saddam Hussein is due to stand trial shortly thereafter.

"We should be talking about this every single day," said Richard Durbin, the number two Democrat in the US Senate.

"It's time for answers, specific answers," said Durbin, one day before the president was to make a major speech on Iraq and the war on terror.

"I hope on Thursday the president speaks truth to the American people," Durbin said.

Congressional Democrats sent a letter to the White House Wednesday demanding a progress report on military and political developments in Iraq.

"The disconnect between how your administration describes the situation on the ground in Iraq and what Americans see every day on their televisions have eroded the American publics support for the war," read the letter signed by 34 Democratic senators.

"These conditions and contradictions have fueled concerns about whether your administration has a strategy for success that will preserve our fundamental national security interests and permit us to bring our troops home."

Another Senate Democrat, Evan Bayh, this week introduced an amendment to a Defense Department spending bill requiring the Pentagon and the CIA to make monthly progress reports to Congress on military and political developments in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the leader of Senate Democrats, Harry Reid, on Wednesday angrily accused Republicans of forcing the cancellation of a closed door Senate briefing on Iraq from US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.

Reid complained that Republicans scuttled the meeting -- which had been organized by Democrats -- as a way of "keeping the Congress and the American people in the dark."

"America deserves better than this pattern of avoiding the tough questions," Reid said, adding that there were at least 20 Democratic senators who had planned to attend the briefing with Negroponte.

"Blocking Senators from receiving vital national security information is wrong, unprecedented and irresponsible," he said.

But the Senate's top Republican, Bill Frist, insisted that there is no dearth on information about developments in Iraq, and said he had no objection to briefings from senior Bush administration officials -- as long as they are "initiated on a bipartisan basis, and not on a partisan basis."

He noted that several senior military officials had appeared at Capitol Hill hearings last week to discuss US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to provide a similar update in about two weeks.

The partisan dust-up in Congress came as thousands of US troops widened a sweep for Al-Qaeda fighters near Iraq's border with Syria, to shore up security in the run-up to a crucial vote on the country's draft constitution.

The October 15 vote is seen as a key step in Iraq's political transition following the ouster of Saddam Hussein by US-led forces in April 2003, and comes ahead of planned elections in December.

It also is being held just four days before Saddam and seven of his former henchmen are due to go on trial over a massacre of Shiite villagers in 1982. They face the death penalty if convicted.

The United States, meanwhile, pressed on with its latest bid to root out insurgents in western Iraq, saying it had killed 42 insurgents so far in an assault involving 1,000 troops in a border region launched last Saturday.

Tuesday, about 2,500 US soldiers launched another operation in Iraq's western al-Anbar province.

The US general commanding troops in Baghdad, William Webster, warned meanwhile that Iraqi insurgents will likely increase their attacks in Baghdad ahead of the referendum, in a bid to discredit both the government and the political process.