Democrats unveil plan to bolster security

Leaders pledge to rebuild military, make 2006 year of `transition' in Iraq


WASHINGTON -- Sharpening their election-year message, leading Democrats released yesterday a plan that promises to strengthen the nation's security but offers few details about how they would achieve their sweeping goals.

On Iraq, the plan - echoing language recently approved by Congress - said Democrats would "ensure 2006 is a year of significant transition ... with Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country."

It sets out no timetables or targets for reducing the U.S. military commitment there.

The Democrats also pledged to rebuild the military, "eliminate" terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, improve homeland security, free the nation from its reliance on foreign oil by 2020 and pressure Iraq's feuding political factions to reach a consensus on a national unity government.

The agenda "will take America in a new direction, one that is tough and smart," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

The plan, titled "Real Security," is part of a Democratic effort to clarify the party's message before the November midterm elections by releasing policy statements. Earlier this year, Democrats issued a lobbying reform plan.

By focusing on national security policies before detailing their ideas on traditional party priorities such as health care or education, the Democrats signaled their desire to neutralize an issue that has been a strong point for President Bush since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Democratic plan provoked a coordinated flurry of counterattacks from leading Republicans. In statements and interviews, GOP officials said Democrats had belied their tough talk by challenging Bush on some national security issues, including his approval of a domestic surveillance program that operates without obtaining court warrants.

"Their behavior has been totally inconsistent with what they're now promising they're going to do," Vice President Dick Cheney said in a radio interview.

The Democratic plan was released at a rally attended by dozens of the party's most prominent figures. Amplifying an increasing Democratic campaign theme, speakers accused Bush of mismanaging the nation's defense and foreign policies.

"I have never seen such rank incompetence as we are seeing from the Bush administration," charged Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, Bush continued a heightened effort to shore up public support for his Iraqi policy.

Speaking at a Washington gathering sponsored by the Freedom House, a nonpartisan group that promotes democracy, Bush said the sectarian violence in Iraq is not the result of the U.S. invasion but "is the legacy of Saddam Hussein."

The former Iraqi dictator, Bush argued, "exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power" and created the animosities fueling the bloodshed between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Democrats were spirited in their denunciations of Bush's record on national security but offered few insights into the policies they would pursue if they were returned to power.

The party document said Democrats would double the size of the military's special forces, pass legislation improving health care for veterans and push for screening of all cargo bound for the United States "in ships or airplanes at the point of origin."

Party leaders said they would make "the needed investments in equipment and manpower so that we can project power to protect America wherever and whenever necessary." Their aides said the proposal does not commit Democrats to any specific increase in defense spending.

Along with its vow to eliminate bin Laden, the plan says Democrats would "destroy terrorist networks like al-Qaida, finish the job in Afghanistan and end the threat posed by the Taliban."

Other than adding to special forces and improving the nation's intelligence capacity, the document offers no hints of strategies the party might use to achieve those goals.

Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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