Iraq debate renewed

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- As the Senate began a new debate on the war in Iraq yesterday, the White House brushed off calls from a growing chorus of Republican lawmakers to change course in the more than four-year-old conflict.

"The president wants to withdraw troops based on the facts on the ground, not on the matter of politics," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters. "There is no intensifying discussion about reducing troops."

Snow also tried to minimize the differences between President Bush and his GOP critics on Capitol Hill by explaining that the president also wants to bring home the troops.

In the past two weeks, several veteran Senate Republicans, including some who have been loyal supporters of Bush's war strategy, have publicly declared the troop "surge" a failure and urged him to begin planning a withdrawal.

The GOP defections have increased pressure on the White House, just as the Bush administration is completing a report on the situation in Iraq that it must send to lawmakers before next Monday. Snow indicated the report would acknowledge the Iraqi government has not met all the goals identified by Congress this spring.

The defections also have further emboldened Senate Democrats, who are planning a series of votes during the next two weeks to get Republicans to join their campaign to force a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by next spring.

The Senate began consideration of the first such proposal yesterday, an amendment to the $649 billion defense authorization bill that would place new requirements on the military to guarantee that troops coming home from Iraq get adequate rest before they are redeployed.

"We are now in the fifth year of ground combat operations in Iraq," said Virginia Democratic Sen. James Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy who sponsors the measure.

"This deck of cards is crashing down," he said, "and it's landing heavily on the heads of the soldiers and the Marines who have been deployed again and again while the rest of the country sits back and debates Iraq as an intellectual or emotional exercise."

A similar legislative gambit by House Democrats failed earlier this year amid complaints from the administration and many GOP lawmakers that such requirements would put too many limits on the military.

But as casualties mount and long deployments take a toll on communities nationwide, Democrats hope they will now attract more Republican support.

Democratic leaders are also planning other amendments to enact withdrawal timelines much like those that proved so contentious during the debate over a war-funding bill this spring. Bush vetoed a bill in May that would have required the beginning of a withdrawal, forcing Democrats to abandon such an approach.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed are crafting a proposal that would mandate that a withdrawal begin 120 days after enactment and finish by March 31.

Like previous Democratic proposals, this one would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for limited missions, including protecting U.S. personnel, training Iraqi forces and going after terrorist groups.

In the past, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and Oregon's Gordon Smith were the only GOP senators to vote for a timeline. But yesterday, Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a longtime critic of the president's Iraq strategy, said she is very seriously considering voting for one.

Democrats may also hold a vote on a proposal by Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia to revoke the war authorization passed by Congress in 2002.

And they may introduce amendments to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to grant the terrorism detainees there additional rights to challenge their incarceration.

Most Senate Republicans, including those who have recently called on the president to change course in Iraq, have said they will not support a withdrawal timeline, and instead back a bipartisan proposal to enact the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

The bipartisan commission, which released its report in December, offered a series of 79 policy prescriptions, including regional diplomatic efforts and increased pressure on the Iraqi government, designed to allow a pullout early next year.

"It would get us out of the combat business and into the support business," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, one of the proposal's authors who last week called on the president to plan a withdrawal.

Without a withdrawal deadline, however, the proposal has attracted lukewarm support from most Democrats, who think a pullout date is the only way to push the Iraqi government to make more progress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said yesterday that he is still considering whether to allow a vote on the proposal.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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