Democrats want early Iraq exit

November 13, 2006|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Democrats poised to take control of Congress said yesterday that they would press to begin a phased U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq within four to six months, part of an agenda aimed at overhauling key aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"The first order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is in line to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee next year.

Senior White House officials countered that setting timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals would weaken the Iraqi government and embolden insurgents. But they acknowledged a need for fresh ideas on Iraq and expressed a willingness to negotiate with Democrats on an array of foreign policy issues.

The White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, indicated yesterday on the ABC News program This Week that President Bush would block any legislation that calls for a scheduled military withdrawal from Iraq.

"I don't think we're going to be receptive to the notion there's a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out, because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people," Bolten said.

Even so, he said that the White House is "willing to talk about anything" and is prepared to adjust tactics.

The developments came as Bush and members of his national security team prepared to meet today with a panel of foreign policy experts who have been charged with developing new proposals for how to proceed in Iraq. The panel is headed by James A. Baker III, who served as secretary of state when Bush's father was president, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman who served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The push for a phased pullout, an idea long rejected by the Bush administration, appears to be gaining momentum. Senior military officials recently have expressed the growing concern that the security benefits of keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq are outweighed by significant downsides created by the U.S. presence. Among them is the perceived reluctance of Iraqis to take the lead in stemming violence as long as U.S. forces are there.

"We have to tell the Iraqis that the open-ended commitment is over and that we're going to begin to have a phased withdrawal in four to six months," Levin said.

Levin was joined in his call for a phased pullout by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who is in line to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader in the Senate, told NBC's Meet the Press that decisions on troop reductions should rest with U.S. military officers in Iraq. Still, he said, "We need to redeploy," and a withdrawal should start within several months.

Given the results of last week's elections, the Baker-Hamilton panel - formally known as the Iraq Study Group - has become a focal point for members of both parties as they seek an upper hand in setting the Iraq agenda. The panel is expected to deliver its findings by the end of the year.

Levin said he hopes that the commission will endorse calls for a phased pullout. Bush is likely to use his meeting with the panel today to make the case for elements of the administration's approach.

Iraq was a key factor in Republican losses in last week's election, with nearly six in 10 voters participating in exit polls saying that they disapprove of the war and a majority calling for a withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops.

Even so, it is unclear how far GOP lawmakers will go in challenging the White House and supporting calls for a phased withdrawal. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said yesterday that he believes the United States needs to send more troops to Iraq to curb sectarian violence and reduce the influence of heavily armed Shiite militias.

"I believe that there are a lot of things that we can do to salvage this, but they all require the presence of additional troops," McCain said on Meet the Press.

"The question then before the American people is: Are we ready to quit? And I believe the consequences of failure are chaos in the region, which will spread."

Members of both parties said they expect the Baker-Hamilton commission to recommend that the United States hold a conference with representatives from Iraq's Middle East neighbors to seek greater cooperation in pacifying the country and creating a stable government.

Biden said Iran and Syria should be included in such a conference, because of their influence in the region. Baker recently met with an Iranian envoy at the United Nations to discuss the prospects for cooperation.

A proposal that calls for joint meetings with Syria and Iran would pose diplomatic problems for the Bush administration, which has labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil" and has been reluctant to engage either country.

Bolten stopped short of rejecting such a conference but made it clear that the White House does not believe that dialogue with Iran and Syria would improve matters.

"I don't think there's been a communications problem; there's been a cooperation problem," he said. "Iran and Syria have been meddling in Iraq in a very unhelpful way."

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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