Taking his strongest stance to date against the Iraq war, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin called on the president yesterday to start bringing U.S. troops home immediately, thrusting foreign policy to the forefront of Maryland's competitive race for an open Senate seat.
Cardin set the end of 2007 as a reasonable goal for full withdrawal. He made his remarks as President Bush struggles with his Iraq strategy, consulting with his top advisers in Camp David this week, and as the House prepares for its most intensive debate on the war since it began more than three years ago.
Many of Cardin's 19 opponents seized on his plan, some saying that he is copying a stance they took earlier and others saying that he has suddenly reversed course. Most of those surveyed yesterday said they, too, support a troop withdrawal, a stance increasingly popular with the public.
In a poll conducted for The Sun in November, two-thirds of Maryland voters said the United States should pull its troops out of Iraq, and 18 percent said there should be an immediate withdrawal.
Kweisi Mfume, one of Cardin's principal opponents in the Democratic primary, said he carved out a similar position nearly a year ago, calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
"This should start right away and end by next year," said Mfume, a former congressman and a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"And there ought to be a mutual increase in United Nations peacekeeping forces. We've got to get other countries involved. The problem is, we've had this go-it-alone attitude, and as a result we've shouldered all the burden.
"I'm glad to know that Mr. Cardin has come around to our way of thinking. For many of us, this has been a burning issue for a long time."
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican front-runner in the Senate race, also agrees that troop withdrawals need to be begin immediately, said Doug Heye, his communications director.
"He's constantly called for the president to accelerate his exit strategy," Heye said. "He has not issued a timetable, but he has said this for a while, that we need to begin the process of withdrawal."
The Maryland Democratic Party disputed that, issuing a statement saying Steele has consistently supported Bush's war strategy and pointing to a recent New York Times article that quoted Steele as saying, "The birth of democracy [in Iraq] is an ugly process. It's a lot like making sausage. Now, when it's done, it's good. Fried up, it's delicious."
Steele, "like the President and Administration officials, refuses to acknowledge mistakes, and is out of touch with the reality on the ground," the statement said.
Cardin said yesterday that Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a "major mistake" and repeatedly criticized him for failing to work with the international community on resolving the problems in Iraq.
"We paid a heavy price for this policy," said Cardin, keynote speaker at the Maryland Leadership Institute, a summer program being held at the University of Maryland, College Park for college students from across the nation. "Over 2,400 American soldiers have died, 18,000 have been injured, $300 billion of money has been spent, and the United States' standing internationally has suffered dramatically."
The withdrawal should begin with National Guard troops, Cardin said. "They should come home first," he said. "They were never intended to be the primary force in our military occupation. We need them here in the United States to deal with our local needs."
Cardin voted against giving Bush the power to use force in Iraq in late 2002. But some of his opponents - most notably Democrat Allan J. Lichtman, an American University professor, and third-party candidate Kevin Zeese - pointed to votes by Cardin last year that they said showed support of the war.
Both noted his vote against an amendment that said the president should develop a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and submit it to the congressional defense committees.
In another vote, they said, Cardin supported a Republican-sponsored House resolution that said the United States must not withdraw from Iraq until it is clear that its goals are about to be achieved.
Asked about those votes yesterday, Cardin said he has never wavered in his opposition to the war or the administration's policies but that circumstances have changed over the past year, with the Iraqi government achieving major milestones and U.S. forces exhausted.
Lichtman pledged that if he is elected to the Senate, he will vote against all efforts to finance the war.
"Everything else is hot air unless you cut off the funding," Lichtman said. "That's the lesson of Vietnam.
Zeese said he favors an "orderly managed exit" in which troops are withdrawn within four to six months. The troops would be replaced by peacekeeping forces from the Arab League or United Nations and ideally would not include U.S. forces, he said.
Businessman Josh Rales, another candidate in the Democratic primary, supports bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq by March of next year, said Alyson Chadwick, his communications director. He also would vote against additional funding for combat operations after that date, she said.
"It is time to allow the citizens of Iraq to determine their country's future," Rales said in a statement. "We need to bring our servicemen and women home and rededicate ourselves to taking care of our veterans and the families of our fallen soldiers, as well as to protecting our homeland."
A. Robert Kaufman, an activist and perennial candidate who also is running in the Democratic primary, said that for him, immediate withdrawl means two weeks, not more than a year.
"It didn't take us a year or two to invade that country," he said. "I think we ought to do the same thing in Afghanistan. I'm for withdrawing all American troops."
The only candidate contacted yesterday who did not say he supports troop withdrawal was Democrat Dennis F. Rasmussen, a former Baltimore County executive. He opposed the war from the start but said that developing a withdrawal timetable is a "dangerous" strategy."
"I do not support the war and would not have supported sending the troops there," he said. "We've taken over a country in the Middle East and totally decimated it. Now that we're there, we have a mission to accomplish."
Cardin's speech yesterday follows several months in which he has pressed the Bush administration to formulate a plan to bring U.S. troops in Iraq home.
Last month, he tried to persuade his colleagues to press Bush to put one in writing. He introduced an amendment to a defense bill, but Republican House leaders refused to allow the measure to come to a vote.
Cardin said he will again try to introduce an amendment outlining an exit strategy when the House takes up a debate on the war this week. He said he is confident that if the measure is allowed to come to a vote, he will have bipartisan support.
Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.