Iraq vote sparks U.S. politics

Bush portrays vindication of his policies

Democrats press for an exit plan


WASHINGTON - Both President Bush and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill tried yesterday to capitalize on the election in Iraq, with the White House saying it was a ratification of its political and military strategies and Democrats saying it should open the way for a clear exit plan.

With the State of the Union address scheduled for tomorrow night, both parties appeared to be maneuvering to gain political advantage from the relatively peaceful vote. White House officials said the address was being rewritten to celebrate the images of jubilant Iraqis at the polls as part of a "democratic wave" that has also swept Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.

In an effort to pre-empt the speech, two leading Democrats, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, demanded that Bush use the speech to explain how long U.S. forces would remain in Iraq, and how he would measure success there - terms that Bush has kept vague.

"Yesterday's elections were a milestone," said Reid, the Senate minority leader. "But on Wednesday night, the president needs to spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead to defeat the growing insurgency, rebuild Iraq, increase political participation by all parties, especially Iraq's moderates, and increase international involvement.

"But most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there."

Bush also sought to use the election to mend diplomatic ties with Europe. He began his day by calling the two foreign leaders who most vocally opposed the war - President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany - and the White House described them as enthusiastic at the outcome of the election.

Nonetheless, there was no evidence that their refusal to send troops to help stabilize Iraq was about to change, and their spokesmen made clear that the elections did not, in their mind, vindicate Bush's decision to start a pre-emptive war.

Bush is to go to Europe this month as part of an effort to smooth over a first term marked by ruptures within the Atlantic alliance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Europe and the Middle East this week.

Bush is trying to leave himself as much flexibility as possible on declaring when it will be time to leave Iraq. He has declined to set any definite standards, saying that in judging Iraqi troops "we need to think not only in terms of the quantity of people in uniform but, more importantly, the quality of the units."

Similarly, he said timetables would be counterproductive, a point his press secretary, Scott McClellan, emphasized yesterday: "The president has ... concluded they send the wrong message to the terrorists because all terrorists have to do is wait.

"The timetable is based on completing the mission, and part of completing the mission is training and equipping Iraqi security forces and making sure that they have the command structure so that they're fully ready to defend their country."

One of Bush's more delicate missions in recent days has been to talk about the elections with Arab leaders. White House officials gave some more details yesterday about Bush's telephone conversations Sunday with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, two authoritarian leaders whom Bush often describes as allies.

McClellan said Bush's conversations with both leaders were brief and touched on the future of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The United States has all but abandoned its push to recruit European troops - and troops from Asian or Arab countries - to help secure Iraq.

Instead, Washington is concentrating on training Iraqi troops and enlisting European and Arab nations' help to do so. This effort will now probably speed up, administration officials said.

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