Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, warned on Monday that the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq would have disastrous consequences for American security, and said critics of the war were overlooking the substantial progress the nation had already made in fostering democracy and stability in the country.

The speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington was the latest in a series of efforts by the administration of President George W. Bush to shore up flagging public and congressional support for the war.

It follows weeks of bitter debate in Congress, capped by last week’s call by Democratic congressman John Murtha, a former marine and decorated Vietnam veteran, to pull all US troops out of Iraq within six months. Mr Murtha, a strong backer of the Pentagon with close ties to the US military, said yesterday that there was no sign the war could be won by US troops. “I’m trying to prevent another Vietnam,” he said.

While Mr Murtha’s position remains a minority one, even among Democratic critics of the war, it underscored the pressure the Bush administration is under to begin drawing down troops in Iraq. US military leaders are preparing for the possibility of reducing troop numbers next year, even as the White House has focused on persuading the public that leaving Iraq would be catastrophic.

Mr Cheney on Monday painted the consequences in stark terms.

“A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations and a terrible blow to the future security of the US,” he said.

“Such a retreat would convince the terrorists that free nations will change our politics, forsake our friends, abandon our interest whenever we are confronted with murder and blackmail.”

He accused the war’s critics of “self-defeating pessimism” at “a time of real progress in the country”. He said US and Iraqi forces had made “decisive strikes against terrorist strongholds” and pointed out that every political benchmark – from the handover of sovereignty to the drafting of a constitution – had so far been met.

The only way the insurgents can win in Iraq “is for us to walk away from the fight”, he said.

The speech was part of a broader effort by the administration to shift the debate away from questions about whether Mr Bush misled Congress and the public in launching the war.

Many Democrats, even those who supported the war initially, now charge that the White House deliberately manipulated the prewar intelligence on Iraq.

The vice-president said that, while he welcomed criticism over the conduct of the war, the claim “that Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood . . . is revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety”.

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