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Cheney defends US handling of Iraq

Assails criticism as inaction putting Americans at risk

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States still faces enemies that could inflict hundreds of thousands of American deaths in a single day, and he defended the Iraq invasion as a critical strike against such terror.

"We could not accept the grave danger of Saddam Hussein and his allies turning weapons of mass destruction against us or our friends and allies," Cheney told the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation yesterday.

Cheney struck back at criticism of the Iraq war that has built over the months since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1. His speech picked up where Bush left off a day earlier, when the president told listeners in Portsmouth, N.H., "The challenges we face today cannot be met with timid actions or bitter words."

Yet Cheney offered no new evidence that Hussein posed an imminent threat as the administration claimed before the war. The vice president's 25-minute speech also largely dismissed the continuing violence in Iraq, the lack of broad international collaboration, and the failure so far to find any weapons of mass destruction, mentioning only in passing the "difficulties we knew would occur."

The vice president said, "The ultimate nightmare could bring devastation to our country on a scale we have never experienced.

"Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands in a single day of war," Cheney said.

"Remember what we saw on the morning of 9/11. And knowing the nature of these enemies, we have as clear a responsibility as could ever fall to government," Cheney said. "We must do everything in our power to keep terrorists from ever acquiring weapons of mass destruction."

Cheney did not offer new evidence that there was any link between Hussein and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he cast the Iraq invasion as part of the war on terror. He contrasted the Bush administration's efforts to combat terrorism with what he called previous presidents' "ad hoc" attempts.

"President Bush declined the course of inaction, and the results are there to see," Cheney said.

"It would be reckless in the extreme to rule out action and save our worries until the day they strike," he said. "If the threat from terrorists and terrorist states are permitted to fully emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late."

"That is the debate; that is the choice set before the American people. And as long as George W. Bush is president of the United States, this country will not permit gathering threats to become certain tragedies," Cheney said.

His speech was the latest in a wave of public appearances and interviews top White House officials are using to answer critics of Bush's handling of Iraq. The president planned to conduct a half-dozen television interviews on Monday.

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