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WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Robert Byrd says the Bush administration appeared to deceive the American people into launching an illegal, unprovoked attack on Saddam Hussein's government.

His remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday made for some of the toughest criticism of the Iraq war from Congress.

Referring to turmoil in postwar Iraq, Byrd, D-W.Va., said: "If the situation in Iraq is the result of liberation, we may have set the cause of freedom back 200 years."

Byrd, 85, speaks as the Senate's most senior member and one of the strongest opponents of the war.

"It appears to this senator that the American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises," Byrd said.

"There is ample evidence that the horrific events of Sept. 11 have been carefully manipulated to switch public focus from Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, who masterminded the Sept. 11th attacks, to Saddam Hussein who did not."

He said the administration's talk of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify the war "has become more than embarrassing."

"It has raised serious questions about prevarication and the reckless use of power," he said. "Were our troops needlessly put at risk? Were countless Iraqi civilians killed and maimed when war was not really necessary? Was the American public deliberately misled? Was the world?"

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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