WASHINGTON -- President Bush, struggling to hold on to his strategy for fighting the war in Iraq, faced a new challenge yesterday from two of the Republican Party's most respected lawmakers.
Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, former committee chairmen and authorities on foreign and military affairs, unveiled a proposal that would force the White House to submit a plan in October to begin redeploying U.S. forces at the end of the year.
"We want to avoid a drift in Iraq policy," said Lugar, who after years of standing by the president called publicly for change two weeks ago in a detailed critique of the White House's current strategy in Iraq.
The much-anticipated proposal does not require a troop withdrawal, as congressional Democrats have been demanding for months. And it may be largely symbolic, because the measure faces long odds to win the support of a bipartisan supermajority of 60 senators.
The Warner-Lugar plan would compel the president before Oct. 16 to present Congress with a plan to "transition U.S. combat forces from policing the civil strife or sectarian violence in Iraq." The plan would have to "refocus" military operations in Iraq on guarding the borders, mounting counterterrorism operations, protecting U.S. personnel and training Iraqis. Warner and Lugar recommend that the plan be able to be implemented by the end of the year.
"The surge must not be an excuse for failing to prepare for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is withdrawal, redeployment or some other option," Lugar said. "We saw in 2003 after the initial invasion of Iraq the disastrous results of failing to plan adequately for contingencies."
Yesterday, evidence emerged that military officials are planning to begin redeploying next year. In a briefing with Pentagon reporters, Maj. Gen Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said he recommended that U.S. forces in his area begin to draw down in 2008, a process that could take a year to a year and half to complete.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he did not know how many U.S. troops would need to remain in Iraq over the long term.
Warner and Lugar's proposal underscored the Pyrrhic nature of the success the president had this week in persuading Republicans on Capitol Hill to wait until after a September progress report to challenge his strategy.
Bush has been working to stem defections by GOP lawmakers who are increasingly questioning the effectiveness of a plan he announced in January to deploy 30,000 more troops in Baghdad and elsewhere in a "surge" to quell violence and allow Iraq's political leaders to reduce sectarian tensions.
Doubts were fueled this week by a congressionally required report in which the administration conceded that the Iraqi government had failed to make substantial progress on most of 18 key political goals. These benchmarks are considered essential steps to reduce sectarian violence.
Most Republicans, even those critical of the troop buildup, seem willing to refrain from voting for a course change until the administration delivers a more detailed report on Bush's "New Way Forward" strategy on Sept. 15. Without Republican support, Democrats in the Senate cannot pass such a measure.
Bush may be forced to plan for a change, however.
The Warner-Lugar proposal would need to draw Democratic support to be attached to a defense spending bill being debated in the Senate.
But a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, reacted coolly yesterday, suggesting that Democrats are reluctant to give the president as much leeway as Warner and Lugar would allow in their measure.
"They put a lot of faith in the president that he will voluntarily change course and voluntarily begin to reduce the large U.S. combat footprint in Iraq," said Jim Manley. "Unfortunately, Senator Reid is not as confident in the president's willingness to change course voluntarily. In the fifth year of the war, we need strong legislation that compels the president to change course, change the mission and begin the reduction of U.S. troops."
Reid and most Senate Democrats back a proposal by Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island that would compel a redeployment to begin within 120 days of enactment and be completed by April 30.
It was unclear yesterday how much Republican support Lugar and Warner would be able to attract for their measure, as most lawmakers were heading home for the weekend. But both men have played prominent roles in widening the gap between GOP lawmakers and the president over Iraq.
Warner helped lead opposition to the president's surge this year, though he opposed binding measures to confront the White House. And Lugar's passionate speech prompted other Senate Republicans to go public with their doubts.
The senators, both Navy veterans, are highly regarded voices on military issues. Warner is the past chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Lugar is the past chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Their proposal drew a cautious response from White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "We respect Senators Lugar and Warner and will review carefully the language they have proposed," Fratto said. "But we believe the New Way Forward strategy, which became fully operational less than a month ago deserves the time to succeed."
President Bush spoke by video conference yesterday with civilian and military officials working in Iraqi provinces to restore basic services. As part of his strategy, Bush also increased the number of provincial reconstruction teams.
"There is still a lot of work to be done," Bush told reporters afterward. "But these people at the grass roots understand that most Iraqis want to live in peace and that, with time, we'll be able to help them realize that dream."
Bush administration and Pentagon officials continued yesterday to plead for patience and caution against a rush to pull out troops from Iraq.
Gates, who has discussed redeploying troops with members of Congress, said the Pentagon could not make an assessment about how the military part of the surge was working. "I think that's where we are with September," he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on the morning network shows yesterday, and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley spoke with National Public Radio to reinforce Bush's message that his strategy has made progress and needs two more months before it can be judged.
Noam N. Levey and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.