Democrat urges Iraq pullout

Pa.'s Rep. John Murtha, former Bush ally on war, calls for immediate withdrawal


WASHINGTON -- When he came home from Vietnam, John P. Murtha had two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and - unlike many other veterans - no desire to protest the war.

After he won a U.S. House seat from Pennsylvania in 1974, he became one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, using his position on the House appropriations committee to help lavish the armed forces with money. And when President Bush decided to wage war on Saddam Hussein, perhaps no Democrat was a firmer ally.

So it sent a jolt through Congress yesterday when the same John Murtha stood before a bank of television cameras and announced, tearfully, that he had decided it was time to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. And not soon but now.

"Our military's done everything that has been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily," he said. "It's time to bring the troops home."

As progress in the war has stalled and troop casualties have mounted, a small number of senators and representatives of both parties have begun to urge their colleagues to demand an Iraq "exit strategy" from the administration.

Murtha put himself firmly out in front of his colleagues by calling for the withdrawal to start now - a process he estimated could be completed in six months.

"I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy - immediately redeploy," Murtha said. "No schedule which can be changed. Nothing that's controlled by the Iraqis. This is an immediate redeployment of our American forces because they have become the target."

Anxiety over the war has been rising in Congress in the past two weeks as opinion polls show public support for it plummeting. This week, the Senate adopted a resolution urging that Iraqis take more control of their country during 2006 to hasten the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Reaction to Murtha's announcement was swift and varied.

A statement issued by the White House as Bush was traveling in Asia pointedly linked Murtha to filmmaker Michael Moore.

Calling Murtha "a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America," the statement said: "So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists."

Republican congressional leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, said they were saddened by his about-face.

Democratic leaders praised Murtha's courage in adopting what is an unpopular position but stopped short of endorsing it.

It wasn't polls that convinced the former Marine drill instructor that it was time to change course in Iraq, he said in an interview. It was his weekly visits to wounded troops recuperating from their injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital.

"Let me tell you something: We're charged - Congress is charged - with sending our sons and daughters into battle. And it's our responsibility, our obligation, to speak out for them'" Murtha said. "That's why I'm speaking out."

In a 30-minute news conference, Murtha repeatedly told stories about wounded troops. He spoke of a Seabee, paralyzed from the neck down, surrounded by his wife, mother and three children, all crying because he would be immobile for the rest of his life; of the father of a wounded marine, himself a veteran, who asked the congressman's help to bring a second son home from the war; of a soldier who lost both hands to shrapnel from a "bomblet" dropped by U.S. troops.

That soldier's mother complained that her son was ineligible for a Purple Heart because the device was "friendly."

Murtha, choking up, recounted meeting with military officials. "I said, `If you don't give him a Purple Heart, I'll give him one of mine.' And they gave him a Purple Heart."

Perhaps the last straw for Murtha was what he observed during his most recent trip to Iraq. He said he looked at the military criteria for moving to withdrawal and decided no progress was being made. In his view, he said, living conditions were worse for Iraqis than before the war. And instead of seeing U.S. troops as liberators, Iraqis consider Americans the enemy, he said.

Murtha erupted in anger when asked about Republican senators who asserted that during their stops in Iraq, no troops had called for withdrawal.

"The soldiers aren't going to tell you that," Murtha sputtered. "They're proud of their service. They're looking at their friends. We are here. We have an obligation to speak for them."

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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