A Virginia congressman was engulfed in criticism Tuesday for recent comments suggesting that Jewish leaders were behind the drive toward war with Iraq and had the power to stop the war if they wished.
Rep. James P. Moran, a seven-term House veteran and influential centrist Democrat, sparked the furor with his remarks at an antiwar forum March 3 in northern Virginia.
"If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this," Moran said. "The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should."
Moran opposed October's congressional resolution that authorized the use of force by the United States in the effort to disarm Iraq.
His recent comment was first reported in the Reston Connection, a weekly newspaper, and quickly drew the attention of Jewish organizations. They denounced the comment as anti-Semitic.
"The charge that war with Iraq is the result of Jewish pressure is outrageous, offensive and baseless," leaders of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington office wrote in a letter to Moran.
Those leaders, Chris Wolf and David Friedman, added: "The canard that Jews disproportionately control the government perpetuates the spurious anti-Semitic stereotype of the underhanded Jew who is conspiring to take over the world."
The White House and top congressional leaders from both major parties joined in condemning the remarks, even as Moran scrambled to make amends.
Moran verified the accuracy of the quote, and apologized for what he called "insensitive remarks that I deeply regret."
In a brief telephone interview Tuesday, Moran said he had erred in singling out the Jewish community and that he had meant to urge a broad spectrum of social and religious groups to oppose a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He said he focused on Jewish leaders in his remark because a questioner at the forum had identified herself as Jewish.
"I was responding to a very vocal antiwar audience who were displeased that I wasn't able to stop the war," Moran said. "And I tried to make the point that if they want to be effective in stopping this war, they've got to work through the mainstream American institutions -- social, political, religious."
Moran said he should have pointed out that U.S. Catholics and Southern Baptists also are not voicing strong, organized opposition to war.
"I was obviously deficient in not laying out the broader and more understandable context as I was making the statement" about the Jewish community, he said.
"I've got to just take my licks here," Moran said. "I deserve it. Even though it is not what I intended to say, it is what I did say."
Moran took a pummeling from inside and outside his party.
"Congressman Moran's comments were not only inappropriate, they were offensive," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said. "He has properly apologized. His comments have no place in the Democratic Party."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said: "What he said was uncalled for, outrageous."
On the Republican side, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said Moran seemed insufficiently contrite.
"I think in his apology he stretched it out and said we ought to be talking about these kinds of things," DeLay said. "That's not much of an apology."
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called Moran's remarks "shocking," "wrong" and "inappropriate."
Moran, 57, a former mayor of Alexandria, Va., has frequently found himself in awkward public moments. He has been criticized for his handling of personal financial matters, including loans he accepted from companies with significant business before Congress.
On other occasions he has been criticized for his views on the Mideast conflict. Moran says he unequivocally supports Israeli sovereignty.
But some Jewish critics attack his record on Israel, saying that it is spotty and that he has often used divisive rhetoric in describing his sympathies for Palestinian grievances.
In the latest controversy, some local Jewish groups that oppose Moran are calling on him to resign. Moran said he plans to reach out to Jewish leaders and take other steps to atone for his misstep.
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.