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By NEDRA PICKLER
Democrats on Sunday seized on an intelligence assessment that said the Iraq war has increased the terrorist threat, saying it was further evidence that Americans should choose new leadership in the November elections.
The Democrats hoped the report would undermine the GOP’s image as the party more capable of handing terrorism as the campaign enters its final six-week stretch.
Their criticisms came in a collection of statements sent to reporters Sunday amid the disclosure of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded the war has helped create a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The report was completed in April and represented a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government, according to an intelligence official. The official, confirming accounts first published in Sunday’s New York Times and Washington Post, spoke on condition of anonymity on Sunday because the report is classified.
"Unfortunately this report is just confirmation that the Bush administration’s stay-the-course approach to the Iraq war has not just made the war more difficult and more deadly for our troops, but has also made the war on terror more dangerous for every American," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic effort to take control of the House.
"It’s time for a new direction in this country," Emanuel, D-Ill., said in the statement.
"Press reports say our nation’s intelligence services have confirmed that President Bush’s repeated missteps in Iraq and his stubborn refusal to change course have made America less safe," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. "No election-year White House PR campaign can hide this truth."
A White House spokesman, Blair Jones, said, "We don’t comment on classified documents." But he said the published accounts’ "characterization of the NIE is not representative of the complete document."
The White House issued a written rebuttal that argued administration officials have been making some of the same arguments as in the intelligence estimate. A White House strategy booklet released this month described the terrorists as more dispersed and less centralized and still a threat to the United States.
Bush himself said on Sept. 5 that "terrorist danger remains" and the broader terrorist movement is becoming more spread out and self-directed. He also quoted Osama bin Laden describing Iraq as the central battlefield in the fight against terrorism.
The president has said the United States is safer since the Sept. 11 attacks and that fighting the terrorists in Iraq keeps them from attacking America. He has said leaving Iraq would make the world less safe.
Democrats said Bush had misled people about Iraq’s contribution to the terrorist threat.
"It is abundantly clear that we need a new direction in Iraq by strategically redeploying our troops to fight and win the real war on terror and make our country safer," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "The American people know it and our military leaders do as well. It’s only the Republican leaders who have their heads in the sand, stubbornly refusing to change course and making the war on terror harder to win."
Rep. Jane Harman, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and one of a few lawmakers to have read the classified report, said she agrees with the findings.
"Even capturing the remaining top al-Qaida leadership isn’t going to prevent copycat cells, and it isn’t going to change a failed policy in Iraq," she said. "This administration is trying to change the subject. I don’t think voters are going to buy that."
In congressional races across the country, Democratic candidates used the report to attack their opponents and tie them to Bush’s faltering strategy. In New York, for example, Democratic challenger Kirsten Gillibrand pointed to the report and said GOP Rep. John Sweeney"has supported President Bush 100 percent of the time on Iraq, refusing to ask tough questions or push for honest answers."
"Now is the time for a new direction, and real accountability and oversight," she said, then called for U.S. forces to be moved out of Iraq within six months to a year.
Three leading Republicans — Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sen. John McCainof Arizona and Sen. Mitch McConnellof Kentucky — defended the war in Iraq and said it is vital that U.S. troops stay in the fight. None of them had seen the classified report, but were responding to press coverage of it.
McConnell suggested that the fight in Iraq has stopped terrorists from attacking the U.S. and leaving would only create "a breeding ground for attacks here at home."
"Attacks here at home stopped when we started fighting al-Qaida where they live, rather than responding after they hit," McConnell said in a statement.
McCain told CBS’ "Face the Nation" that if the U.S. were to fail in Iraq, "then our problems will be much more complicated."
But at least one Republican — Sen. Arlen Specterof Pennsylvania — said he was very concerned about the intelligence report and agreed that the war had intensified Islamic fundamentalism.
"I think there is a much more fundamental issue how we respond," he said on CNN’s "Late Edition." "And that is what we do with the Iraq war itself. That’s the focal point for inspiring more radical Islam fundamentalism, and that’s a problem that nobody seems to have an answer to."
Associated Press writer Jim Drinkard contributed to this report.