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Iraq War Dominates Senate Debate

U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) and Democrat Jim Webb clash in McLean.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in Spring 2003, Jim Webb met with U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) for an hour to convey his concerns about waging an unnecessary war that could turn U.S. troops into targets for terrorists.

In that meeting, Allen allegedly dismissed Webb's concerns. He told Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Navy Secretary, that he planned to support the Iraq invasion out of loyalty to President George W. Bush (R). Allen on Sunday disputed the story, saying he told Webb he supported the war out of "loyalty to his country."

Three years later, Allen said he does not regret his vote to authorize the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has cost $315 billion and left 2,684 soldiers dead and 19,910 soldiers wounded.

"I stand by my decision," said Allen, who keeps a slain Virginia soldier's dogtags hanging on his bedroom mirror to remind him of the Iraq war's toll. "The question is now where do we go in the future?"

But Webb, who is running against Allen as a Democrat in the Nov. 7 election, said Allen lacks the leadership skills and military know-how to find that path forward. Webb, a former Republican, endorsed Allen in 2000.

"He is comfortable with the idea that we can stay in Iraq for 20 to 30 years," said Webb, whose son, a U.S. Marine, was recently deployed to Iraq. "I believe we need to work immediately with a confluence of nations who can bring something to the table to bring our combat forces out of Iraq."

Webb proposed convening an international summit of nations to address the Iraq issue, similar to the Madrid Conference held in 1991 after the first Gulf War.

The two candidates were speaking Monday before 600 business leaders at a debate in McLean sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

The question of Iraq dominated much of Monday's debate, which was moderated by ABC journalist George Stephanopoulos.

Were he to unseat Allen, Webb said he would work in the Senate toward finding a way to bring U.S. troops home quickly. As part of the strategy, he said, he would encourage the United States to talk with all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to find a peaceful resolution to turmoil in Iraq.

"You are not going to have peace in the Middle East unless you bring all the countries to the table," Webb said.

Allen did not offer his ideas for ending the war, but repeatedly criticized Webb for suggesting that the United States should discuss Iraq's future with Iran and Syria.

"It makes no sense to have Iran, clearly a state sponsor of terrorism, to have influence in shaping Iraq," Allen said.

To help Iraq become more self-sufficient, Allen suggested that Iraq nationalize its oil industry to pay dividends to each of its citizens.

Allen, who visited Iraq in June, insisted that things are much more stable in that country than it appears. "The northern Kurdish area is a boom town," he said. "The southern area is also doing well. The tough part is the Baghdad area."

On his Iraq trip, Allen said he heard little but gratitude from Iraqis who were thankful for the U.S.-led invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein.

MONDAY'S DEBATE did not only focus on Iraq. A panel of three reporters asked the candidates questions on various issues, including one about whether the federal government should fund embryonic stem cell research.

Allen, who has voted against embryonic stem cell research, said he supports adult stem cell research but does not believe embryos should be destroyed in the name of medical research.

"The federal government should not fund the destruction of human embryos," Allen said.

Webb said he supports embryonic stem cell research, as it may help find cures for debilitating ailments, such as Alzheimer's disease.

"Yes, I would vote for it," said Webb. "You have to respect the weight of medical science and the grave need to apply it to diseases."

Webb pointed out that Nancy Reagan, widow of the former president, has been a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research.

At the mention of Nancy Reagan, Allen criticized Webb for refusing to withdraw a campaign ad that shows footage of President Reagan praising Webb's military service in Vietnam. A letter sent at the request of Nancy Reagan asked the Webb campaign to halt the ad, saying it implies the late president's endorsement.

"I wish he'd shown respect to Nancy Reagan when she asked that an ad featuring her husband be taken down," Allen said.

Allen also took potshots at Webb for writing in 1979 that enlisted women should not be allowed to serve in combat. "Written words are those that you think about and they are words that have an impact," Allen said. "That you try to rationalize these words today shows that the disrespect continues."

Webb apologized for the 27-year-old article. He noted that Allen opposed allowing women into Virginia Military Institute in 1995.

NEITHER CANDIDATE was asked their views Monday about whether Congress should authorize the CIA to interrogate terrorism suspects with controversial methods, possibly including open-hand slapping, simulated drowning, forced nakedness and sleep deprivation.

However, they were both weighed in on the issue Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.

Webb told moderator Tim Russert that he would join with his fellow veterans U.S. Sen. John Warner (R), U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Colin Powell in opposing President Bush's proposal to relax Geneva Convention interrogation restrictions.

Allen, who sat next to Sen. Warner at Monday’s lunch before the debate, said he has not yet made up his mind on the "torture" issue.

A key difference that emerged Monday was how the candidates would aid the 46.6 million Americans without health insurance coverage.

Allen said Congress can play a role in making health insurance more affordable by the expansion of health savings accounts and "litigation reform." He also wants to allow small businesses to band together to share risk and drive down health insurance costs.

Webb, on the other hand, said he supports a national version of Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) plan to provide health insurance to every citizen. Under Romney's plan, nearly every employer is required to provide its workers health insurance and low-income citizens can purchase a subsidized health plan from the state.

When asked how they would vote on U.S. Rep. Tom Davis' (R-11) bill to give Washington, D.C. residents a vote in Congress, Allen said that he would amend the bill to cede all non-federal sections of D.C. to Maryland. Webb said he would support Davis’s bill.

Davis' spokesman, David Marin, said Davis does not support Allen's proposal to cede the 575,000 residents of D.C. to Maryland.

"D.C. residents don't want. Maryland residents don't want it," Marin said. "Residents of the District deserve a voting member all their own. They shouldn't ... be forced to set aside the unique character, history and contributions of the District by being punted to Maryland."

OUTSIDE THE DEBATE at the McLean Hilton, dozens of Allen and Webb supporters waved signs along Jones Branch Drive.

Tom Lovelace, of Clifton, held two blue Allen signs and an American flag. Lovelace said he respects Allen's honesty and strongly supports Allen's views on illegal immigration.

"We've got to stop them from coming into this country," Lovelace said. "When I go up to an ATM machine, I resent that they ask me if I want to speak Spanish or English. Where am I?"

Across the street, Webb supporter Anne Reisser said she trusts Webb on national security issues.

"My late husband was a pilot in Vietnam. I know what a quagmire looks like," she said. "You don't go into a war without a strong exit strategy. Iraq is just like Vietnam. We never should have gone in there in the first place. And Jim Webb has been saying that all along."