CENTRAL VALLEY-"Iraq is a country in flames, and the fuel is the presence of American troops." So said Scott Ritter, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, on Saturday, Sept. 18. He contends that the only solution to the crisis in Iraq is for the United States to withdraw. While he acknowledged that the result "would not be pretty," Ritter said to delay would only be worse. Ritter was the keynote speaker at an all-day Mid-Hudson People's Assembly entitled "Reclaiming our Democracy." A morning panel discussion was entitled "Dumbing Us Down: The Crisis of Truth in the Propaganda State. This was followed by workshops on topics that varied from community organizing and building local economies to free trade and the privatization of global water supplies. Altogether the assembly offered some 26 workshops in three sessions. About 300 to 350 participants attended, according to Tula Tsalis, a principal organizer. At least that many people were present in the Central Valley Elementary School auditorium for Ritter's speech. Ritter said he voted for George W. Bush four years ago, but on Satuday he had few kind words for the president. But he noted that the problems in Iraq go back much further. The United States was a major supporter of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, Ritter said. Many of the weapons Saddam had were initially supplied by the United States when he was at war with our then-enemy, Iran. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, he was suddenly elevated to a Middle Eastern Hitler by the first Bush administration. "If Saddam was such a threat, why didn't we intervene decisively," Ritter asked. "It was because Saddam wasn't a danger to the world, he was a danger to the political ambitions of George H.W. Bush." Although former President Bill Clinton continued sanctions initiated after the first Gulf War, many opportunities to end the tension were missed during the Democrat's tenure, he said. After years of sanctions that led to the death of some 2 million Iraqis and the breakdown of all armaments in the country - conventional as well as chemical and biological - Iraq was not a danger to anyone in 2003, Ritter maintained. United Nations inspectors had verified the destruction of some 95 to 98 percent of Saddam's arsenal. And, he added, no evidence has been presented that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda. Ritter said he did not think that bombing Afghanistan was the best way to go after Osama bin Laden, but it was at least an attempt to catch and punish the people behind the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The focus on Iraq shifted our resources from Afghanistan, allowing bin Laden to escape and his organization to grow, he added. In fact, Ritter said, by pointing out to the strict Muslims in charge of Afghanistan that Osama's attack on the United States violated the basic precepts of their religion they might in time have been convinced to turn the terrorists over. As the war in Iraq has progressed, the insurgents have become stronger. The longer Americans stay, the stronger the insurgents will get, Ritter said. And that will make it the harder for the Iraqis to solve their own problems. Asked how we could time our withdrawal, Ritter responded, "the way you get out is you get out." He acknowledged that a possible result would be civil war and possibly the establishment of a fundamentalist Muslim government. But whatever happens, he said, the choice would be an Iraqi choice. "It won't be pretty, but the possibility of a pretty solution is past," he concluded. Ritter said he won't be voting for George W. Bush in November because "we have a president who clearly failed in Iraq." On the other hand, John Kerry voted to give Bush the authority to go to war when he should have known there were no weapons of mass destruction. But "if John Kerry wins in Nov. 2, we can celebrate that night, but on Nov. 3 we have to start the next American revolution. We can start with local elections, then maybe win a few Senate seats and eventually have a president we can truly vote for."