PORTLAND &

Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley says he has no regrets about his 2003 vote on an Iraq war resolution that has become an issue in his campaign to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith.




The nonbinding House resolution, approved as the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq, voiced support for U.S. troops, but also praised "the courage of President George W. Bush" and supported "the victorious removal of Saddam Hussein."




Merkley, in an interview with The Associated Press, fended off criticism he's gotten on the subject from Republicans as well as his Democratic challenger, Steve Novick.




"I wanted to stand up and say I disagree completely with the decision to go to this war, but I honor the sacrifice and the dedication and the courage of our troops," Merkley said Monday.




The Portland Democrat also said that having U.S. troops in Iraq "is not helping" that country and he would advocate bringing the troops home, "starting immediately."




"I don't think our troops will or should have a significant role in the country," Merkley said. "Our troops need to get out."




Merkley noted that even though he voted "yes" on the House resolution, he gave a floor speech that day in which he said he was "not persuaded" by the Bush administration's arguments that Iraq was a threat to the U.S. or that invading Iraq was the best way to fight terrorism.




In Monday's interview, Merkley said his decision to back the resolution stemmed in part from his experience as a Pentagon analyst in the Reagan administration, a job he said brought him into contact with a lot of Vietnam war veterans.




"I knew how deeply troubling it was to them to come back from that war and not have the strong support of the American population," he said.




With the 2003 Iraq resolution, he said, "we were recognizing that our men and women had just been sent into harm's way and were facing something very difficult, and I thought it was important to recognize that."




Republicans have criticized Merkley, saying the Democrat is trying to "have it both ways" by taking Smith to task for his initial support of the war and his shift to an anti-war stance as the 2008 election approach. They said Merkley, despite his assertions about opposing the war, voted for a resolution that backed the Bush administration's move into Iraq.




Novick, meanwhile, on Monday said that most everyone "supports the troops" and that Merkley should have been more resolute in opposing the Iraq war by voting "no" on the state resolution.




"Are we, as Democrats, going to take the position that it is OK to support any piece of Republican garbage, as long as it has a sentence saying, 'We support the troops?' " Novick said.




But Merkley said a "no" vote right after the war started would have sent the wrong message to troops.




"Our frustration and anger over this terribly misguided decision (to go to war) should not be taken out on our troops," he said.