||WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 â€” The decision to hold a pivotal hearing on Iraq on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was no doubt meant to imbue the event with special significance. But the exact message depended on oneâ€™s view of the war.
To Representative Ike Skelton, the self-described country lawyer and Missouri Democrat who leads the Armed Services Committee, it was a reminder that the war has detoured troops from chasing down the actual villains of Sept. 11.
â€œThey are not available to go into Afghanistan to pursue Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders who ordered an attack on us one day short of six years ago,â€ observed Mr. Skelton as he opened hearings before more than 100 members of two committees in the Cannon Caucus Room.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the senior Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, found the push by Democrats for a drawdown of American forces on the anniversary of the attacks to be equally telling. She said it highlighted â€œthe contrast between those of us who are inspired by this new â€˜greatest generationâ€™ and believe that we must confront and defeat Al Qaeda and other jihadists on the Iraqi battlefield, and those of us who believe that we should simply retreat.â€
Those divergent outlooks reflected the clashing views on display as the future of the war bumped into the past of the terror attacks of six years ago.
Inside the hearing room and around the Capitol, Republicans expressed outrage at what they saw as assaults on the integrity of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, particularly an advertisement by the group MoveOn.org that rhymed the generalâ€™s name with Betray-Us.
â€œThere is room for honest disagreement over how to proceed in our fight against Al Qaeda and to bring stability and security to Iraq, but this cheap and shameful attack has no place in this debate,â€ said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader.
Yet Democrats took the floor of the House to urge their colleagues and the public to weigh carefully the generalâ€™s claims and to remember how the Bush administration sold the war, linking Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks and raising the prospect of more.
â€œThe good news is that a lot of people, unlike the run-up to the war, arenâ€™t buying it,â€ said Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois.
Even before the long-awaited Iraq hearings got under way, a Senate committee convened to explore the progress the nation had made in preventing terror assaults. Had it not been for the magnitude of the House hearings, the Senate session of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs would have been the main attraction.
Four senior law enforcement and intelligence officials claimed some success in making America more â€” but not totally â€” secure in the aftermath of the attacks.
â€œWe are safer today than we were on September the 11th, 2001,â€ said John Scott Redd, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. â€œBut we are not safe, and nor are we likely to be for a generation or more.â€
Lawmakers agreed that gains had been made. But one suggested that gaps remained and noted that many Americans, whose most frequent contact with security is at the nationâ€™s airports, wonder how steps such as banning mascara from the carry-on bags of travelers translate into improved safety.
â€œI know it seems small, but for most people in America, they donâ€™t understand why mascara is a problem,â€ said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. â€œIt doesnâ€™t appear to be consistent or have any kind of rhyme or reason to it.â€
As the day unfolded, Congressional Republicans seemed increasingly pleased by the course of the events, saying that Democrats seemed unable to poke many holes in the testimony of General Petraeus or Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq. To them it was a welcome respite from weeks of party division over the war, not to mention days of turmoil over the personal conduct of Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho.
And General Petraeus, unruffled in the face of the Congressional grilling, was more than willing to push back. When Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, suggested the war was not integral to the anti-terror effort since members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, sometimes called Al Qaeda in Iraq, the homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led, is not part of the Qaeda network behind the Sept. 11 attacks, the general offered a quick retort.
â€œThere is no question that Al Qaeda-Iraq is part of the greater Al Qaeda movement,â€ General Petraeus said.
â€œIsnâ€™t it true, General, that Al Qaeda in Iraq formed in 2005, two years after we first got there?â€ pressed Mr. Ackerman.
â€œCongressman, Iâ€™m not saying when it started,â€ the military commander said. â€œIâ€™m saying merely that Al Qaeda-Iraq clearly is part of the overall greater Al Qaeda network.â€
As the Iraq hearing wound down, the House voted Monday to approve a resolution remembering the Sept. 11 attacks and those who perished that day before lawmakers held their own commemoration on the steps of the Capitol â€” where they gathered on Sept. 11 six years ago and spontaneously sang â€œGod Bless America.â€ Yet even that vote provoked differences over the war.
Representative Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who leads the Foreign Relations Committee, accused the administration of cynically conflating the Sept. 11 attacks and the war. â€œIt continues to disturb me to hear the administration linking Iraq with the attacks perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and his thugs, especially when they are still at large.â€
Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, urged his colleagues to try to set aside such political divisions when approaching the war on terror and to not let differences over Iraq â€œobscure our view of the emerging threats to peace.â€
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company