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As Death Toll Hits 2,000, Democrats Divided on Iraq


The US war in Iraq reached a new grim milestone today. The Associated Press reports that 2,000 Americans in uniform have been killed since the invasion two and a half years ago. Polls show that a majority of Americans now say the war has not been worth the cost. And in the US Senate, many Democrats are having second thoughts about their votes authorizing President Bush to invade. As NPR's David Welna reports, the issue is dividing the Democratic Party.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

As the news reached the Senate chamber this afternoon that the US military death toll in Iraq had reached 2,000, senators observed a 22-second moment of silence. Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist then spoke, and he cast those deaths as casualties in a fight against terror.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): They heard the call of duty, and they took the fight to the enemy so that the enemy would not strike us here at home.

WELNA: Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who opposed invading Iraq, emphasized the loss of life.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): We in Maryland have lost 42 soldiers. And most recently we've lost five, five, in just this last week alone.

WELNA: Mikulski is one of 22 Senate Democrats who three years ago this month voted against the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq. Many times they've spoken out on the Senate floor since then against the war. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy today called the Iraq War `a costly disaster for the US.' `How,' he asks, `do we extract ourselves from this mess, and what does the president believe needs to happen there before our troops can come home?'

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Without answers, real answers, honest answers to these questions, I will not support the open-ended deployment of our troops in a war that was based on falsehood and justified with hubris.

WELNA: Leahy declared he will always be proud to have been one of the senators who voted against the Iraq War resolution. But 29 other Senate Democrats voted for the Iraq resolution. Here's Connecticut's Christopher Dodd justifying his vote on the Senate floor three years ago.

(Soundbite of 2002 speech)

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Ultimately my main reason for supporting the resolution is that I believe that the chances of avoiding war with Iraq are enhanced substantially if this country is united as a nation.

WELNA: But Dodd now says he regrets casting that vote.

Sen. DODD: It was only because of the confirmation by intelligence sources and the commitment of the administration and everything else that there were weapons of mass destruction we even had a vote. So had I known then what I know now, the answer'd have been no categorically.

WELNA: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who was a member of the Intelligence Committee, says she, too, regrets voting for the Iraq resolution. She feels she was mislead.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Had I known that the intelligence that I reviewed in a classified forum, in a non-classified reform was both bad and wrong, I would not have voted.

WELNA: Three years ago Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin faced a tough re-election race only weeks after he cast his vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): I have really gone over my vote on this because I've felt very badly about it. And it was one of the biggest voting mistakes of my career.

WELNA: West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller was chairman of the Intelligence Committee when he voted for the Iraq resolution.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): Not only do I have regrets, but I did something I don't think any other Democratic senator did. And I can't figure it out; that is those who voted to give them the original authorization to go to the UN, etc.

WELNA: Rockefeller says he went to the Senate floor when he learned no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and he apologized for his vote. But Democratic strategist David Sirota says such Democrats will have to do more than beat their breasts to atone for their votes.

Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Democratic Strategist): Not just to admit it but to literally go out and campaign on it. I mean, it should be literally an issue of outrage, not sort of like an admission of guilt.

WELNA: But not all Democrats who voted for the Iraq resolution are willing to say they're guilty of anything. One of them is Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I look at that decision as one that was made with the best information that was made available at the time, and you just don't look back.

WELNA: Like Nelson, Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl also faces a re-election battle next year. He turned away today when asked if he regretted voting for the Iraq resolution.

Senator HERB KOHL (Democrat, Wisconsin): I don't have any comment.

WELNA: Another Democrat facing a re-election fight is New York's Hillary Clinton. She, too, declined to say whether she regrets voting for the Iraq resolution.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You know, I really can't talk about this on the fly. It's too important.

WELNA: Clinton's fellow New Yorker, Charles Schumer, is one of the few Senate Democrats who proudly defends his vote for the Iraq resolution.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I believe you had to fight a strong war on terror, and that's what that vote symbolized to me.

WELNA: It's Democrats like Schumer who make it difficult for his caucus to find a unified position on Iraq. One thing they all agree on is the war has been managed badly, but they remain divided on whether it was right to invade Iraq in the first place. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.