Democrats find traction on Iraq plan

Who is most anti-war plays focal part in Senate primary

Maryland Votes 2006

September 02, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Democrats find foothold over Iraq policy President Bush vowed this week to make the fall mid-term elections a fight over the war in Iraq, saying Democrats who oppose it are jeopardizing the struggle against terrorism at their political peril.

But in Maryland's high-profile U.S. Senate race, the Democratic candidates show no sign of being cowed. The debate over Iraq for them is not on whether the war was wise, but on how quickly the U.S. should get out.

A televised debate Thursday between the two leading candidates, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, brought Iraq policy to the forefront of the contest. Mfume called for a date-specific timetable for withdrawal. Cardin, despite longtime opposition to the war, resisted the idea but said 10,000 troops should begin returning each month.

The other well-known candidates in the race have a range of views on the topic, but with Bush and his handling of the war extremely unpopular in Maryland, that range is generally a narrow one, roughly covering the ground between "get out soon" and "get out next week."

"The Iraq war, of all the issues I've seen, is the most divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans ever," said Patrick Gonzales, an Annapolis pollster who reported this week that two-thirds of Marylanders and 83 percent of the state's Democrats oppose Bush's handling of the war.

"For candidates in the Democratic primary to be taking that position is sound political strategy," he said.

Much of the Iraq talk among the Democrats in the Senate race boils down to one-upmanship over who opposed the war first and loudest.

Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore County, was the only candidate in a position to vote on war authorization. The vote came at a time, he says, when opposition was unpopular among his constituents.

But he does not support a date-specific timetable for withdrawing troops, instead calling on the president to develop a plan for an immediate reduction of forces and for additional security responsibilities for Iraqis and troops from other nations.

He said he thinks the U.S. could safely withdraw about 10,000 troops a month -- starting with National Guard forces -- and have all combat personnel out by the end of 2007. But Cardin said those goals should not be turned into rigid requirements.

"It's not a good strategic move to set a specific date because it can jeopardize the smoothness of the operation when your enemies know exactly what you're going to do," Cardin said. "But I make it clear that I do expect this to be a systematic drawdown of our troops and a standing up by Iraqis."

That stance has led to accusations from many of the other candidates in the race that Cardin is insufficiently anti-war. In the final televised debate before the primary, Mfume drew a rare distinction between his views and Cardin's over Iraq, telling a statewide audience that he favored developing a time-specific withdrawal plan.

Mfume said he believes a withdrawal should begin immediately and thinks all U.S. troops could be out of Iraq by the beginning of 2007.

"This is no longer about regime change. This is an all-out civil war," Mfume said. "Our soldiers are in the middle, and they're being shot at by Shiites and Sunnis. There's no clear enemy in all of this, and in the process, we have put our troops in an untenable position."

Several of the candidates who have trailed in the polls have taken aggressive anti-war stands. Josh Rales, a Montgomery County developer who is running a $5 million self-financed campaign, says he was the first candidate to call for a withdrawal by a specific date, "regardless of what anybody else has said."

Rales said he wants all troops out of Iraq by March 2007 and would filibuster in the Senate to stop other business until the body agrees to the deadline.

"It was an ill-conceived war based on false pretenses," Rales said. "We can lead the Iraqi people to water, but we can't make them drink."

Allan Lichtman, an American University professor who, like Rales, criticizes Cardin for "being all over the place in terms of the war," says his plan alone would force the Bush administration to bring troops home. He would cut off all funding for the war.

"It's the only approach," he said. "Everything else is hot air."

A. Robert Kaufman, a socialist and longtime peace activist from Baltimore, says he was the first candidate to denounce the war -- he says he did it five years ago, well before there even was a war, or a Senate race, for that matter.

He advocates pulling up stakes all at once and leaving. The invasion was such a mistake that nothing can fix it, he said.

"We've set in motion a process which is just going to have to wear itself out in one way or another, but whatever the outcomes are, it'll be far better for the Iraqi people if we're not there," Kaufman said.

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