WASHINGTON -- The ugly debate over the war in Iraq has just gotten uglier.
In a written appeal to supporters, Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, has accused House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican, of calling Representative John Murtha a coward.
Ever since Murtha, a decorated Marine from Pennsylvania and a longtime supporter of the military, called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Republicans and Democrats have engaged in a verbal war, questioning their patriotism, their support for the troops, and their right to criticize.
Writing to supporters the day after Murtha's announcement on Nov. 17, Kerry said, ''You and I have to make it absolutely clear that we won't stand for Republican 'Swift Boat'-style attacks on Jack Murtha."
Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 who was savaged by a conservative political group that questioned his Vietnam War service, said the Republican attack machine had set its sights on Murtha, a Democrat, and noted: ''Dennis Hastert -- the Speaker of the House who never served -- accused Jack Murtha of being a coward."
However, Hastert's first response to Murtha, while blistering, never explicitly called Murtha a coward. Neither did a subsequent Internet web blog, in which Hastert appeared to have softened his remarks considerably.
''I need everyone to understand that I have known Congressman Murtha a long time," Hastert wrote just before Thanksgiving. ''He's a good man. I have the utmost respect for him.
''In fact, I'm pretty sure he knows that," Hastert wrote. ''I disagreed with the pullout plan he announced last week."
But Hastert's initial response to Murtha's withdrawal announcement accused him and the Democratic Party of adopting a policy of ''cut and run."
In addition, Hastert said Murtha and the Democrats ''want us to retreat. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world." And he said, ''We must not cower like European nations who are now fighting terrorists on their soil."
A spokeswoman for Kerry said the senator was reacting to Hastert's use of the word ''cower" and said that the speaker and other Republican Party leaders ''were all calling [Murtha] a coward."
''That was the implication," said Jenny Backus, the spokeswoman for Kerry's political action committee, which sent out the letter urging people to complain about ''vicious smear tactics" to elected representatives, radio shows and newspapers.
''John Kerry will stand up and defend the right of any American to speak out about what is happening in Iraq without having their patriotism attacked by the White House and the Republican Party, especially when those who did not serve dare to attack the patriotism of those who have," Backus said yesterday.
A representative for Hastert used the opportunity to make the case for US troops to stay the course in the Middle East.
''Senator Kerry's comments used for campaign fund-raising purposes are simply over the top, extremely inappropriate and factually incorrect," Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert, said in a statement yesterday.
''One does not have to serve in the military to recognize that the policy of retreat and defeat is the wrong approach," Bonjean said.