Iraq policies spin debate

Md. politicians argue who's most opposed


When President Bush speaks tomorrow at the Naval Academy, he will be offering his views about the Iraq war in a state where the debate among politicians isn't over the wisdom of his policies but instead over who opposes them the most.

Democrats running for federal office in Maryland have latched on to the Iraq war as a key wedge issue in their attempts to win in their party primary and defeat Republicans in the fall.

They are offering a range of specific proposals to counter the administration's policy, from immediate, total withdrawal to a reinvigorated commitment of equipment and soldiers. And in two cases, Democrats are emphasizing their ties to the troops in an effort to add credibility to their criticism, a tactic that is being repeated by members of their party nationwide.

"The only thing you're getting out of the Bush administration is, `Stay the course, stay the course until we achieve victory,'" said Andrew Duck, a retired Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq and is running for Congress in the 6th District. "The problem is, we're never going to achieve victory if we stay on this course. If you're walking backward, you're never going to get to what you're looking at."

Bush has reacted strongly to Democratic calls for a timetable on which troops will be withdrawn from Iraq, saying in a statement last week that "when victory is achieved our troops will return home with the honor they deserve."

But in Maryland, even Republicans have gone further than the president in wishing for a troop withdrawal.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has been generally supportive of the White House's policies but has said he wants the administration to begin discussions on bringing troops home. After his Naval Academy speech, Bush will headline a Steele fundraiser in Baltimore.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from the 6th District in Western Maryland, voted against a House resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of soldiers from Iraq but issued a statement saying he wants the troops brought home as soon as possible.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the other Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, lists himself as a "past supporter of Operation Iraqi freedom" and co-sponsored a bill mandating a date-specific draw-down of forces, though he said he had reservations about it.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state's top Republican, declined to comment, saying through a spokeswoman that the matter is a federal issue, meaning that he has no role in setting war policy, unlike a congressman or senator.

Democrats on the stump in Maryland have been relentless in their criticism of Bush's Iraq policy.

Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People head who is running for Senate, has made a call for a total troop withdrawal in 2006 a central part of his campaign.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, another Senate candidate, promotes his vote against the 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraqi war, criticizes the president for mismanaging its aftermath and has demanded that Bush present a plan for bringing the troops home.

Allan Lichtman, a Montgomery County Democrat running for Senate, has criticized Cardin as insufficiently anti-war. Lichtman said Cardin's votes on recent Iraq resolutions dealing with demands for troop withdrawals make him "one of the few Democrats to vote down the line in support of the president's position."

Democrats say voters are interested in a variety of issues, such as Social Security and the price of prescription drugs. But the one that gets nearly everyone talking, they said, is the Iraq war.

"People are telling me, it's Iraq, Iraq, Iraq," said Oz Bengur, a Democrat running for Congress in the 3rd District whose son is a Marine stationed in Iraq. "They're upset at what's going on, and they want a plan to get out."

The two candidates with the closest personal ties to the war have offered the most specific plans for withdrawing the troops.

Duck, who coordinated intelligence activities between the Army and Marines in Iraq during the war before retiring, has outlined a point-by-point plan for securing Iraq and promoting democracy in the Middle East, including providing better equipment for Iraqi troops, bringing allies into the effort and closing the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Time after time, folks on the ground were trying to do what we knew was right and the Bush administration said, `Stop, you're not allowed to,'" Duck said.

Bengur said that he will propose in a speech today a two-stage plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq over the next 18 months. He said a date-specific pullout would force Iraqis to become self-sufficient more quickly, lest their country descend into total chaos.

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