Bush's Iraq plan draws critics


Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 10:54 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Bush's call to increase the U.S. military commitment in Iraq ran into intense congressional opposition Thursday from Democrats and from moderate Republicans who expressed profound skepticism.

A day after the president set out a new strategy for bringing stability to Iraq, the White House found few allies on either side of the aisle when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The reception she received suggested that Bush's prime time address to the nation Wednesday had done little to build political support for sending additional troops to Baghdad.

"I think what occurred here today was fairly profound, in the sense that you heard 21 members, with one or two notable exceptions, expressing outright hostility, disagreement and or overwhelming concern with the president's proposal," the committee's new Democratic chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, said at the conclusion of Rice's testimony.

Republicans were more supportive in the House, where the new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the Armed Services Committee. But Democrats were scathing in their criticism, and in both the House and the Senate, Democratic leaders moved ahead with plans to oppose Bush's plan through nonbinding resolutions.

While saying they do not plan any immediate effort to try to thwart the Bush plan by cutting off funding, some Democrats said they would continue to consider placing limitations on the administration when Congress considers a war spending measure later in the year.

Despite the decision by many members of his party to break with the White House over the troop increase, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he would use parliamentary tactics to try to thwart the Democrats' effort to adopt the Senate resolution opposing the plan.

In Baghdad, Iraq's Shiite-led government responded tepidly to Bush's announcement that he would send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq to bolster the effort to curb rampant sectarian violence. Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki failed to appear as scheduled at a news conference and did not make any public comment.

Meanwhile, Bush and his top Cabinet officials spent Thursday traveling and testifying in support of his new Iraq strategy.

Early in the day, in an emotional ceremony at the White House, Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to the family of Cpl. Jason Dunham, a Marine from Scio, N.Y., who was killed in Iraq in 2004 when he threw himself on a grenade to save the rest of his unit. The president began crying during the ceremony, the second Medal of Honor proceeding to come out of the Iraq war.

Afterward, Bush traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., where he spoke to Army soldiers about the Iraq plan. He said his approach would not produce an immediate reduction in violence but represented "our best chance for success." Some of the troops based at Fort Benning already have served twice in Iraq and are scheduled for a third deployment.

Rice appeared on morning news programs before joining Gates at a news conference in the White House complex. Both then moved to Capitol Hill for a first substantive showdown with the new Democratic majority and an encounter with the shifting politics of the war.

At the House Armed Services Committee hearing, it was standing-room-only. In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who has been critical of the administration's handling of the war, drew applause when he described the president's proposals as a "dangerous foreign policy blunder," and vowed to oppose them. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and a vigorous opponent of the war, spoke of it as "quite possibly the greatest foreign policy mistake in the history of our nation."

Expressing doubt about whether Iraqis "are done killing each other," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said, "Why put more American lives on the line now in the hope that this time they'll make the difficult choice?"

Several Republicans questioned the Bush plan without rejecting it outright, but their call for greater detail made clear they remained unconvinced. Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., agreed that approving new legislation in Iraq on sharing oil revenue would be central to weaving estranged Sunni Arabs into the political process, but he said no U.S. government official could describe the law to him.

"It's the most remarkable law that no one has ever seen," Sununu said.

Away from the congressional hearings, White House and Pentagon officials conducted a series of private meetings Thursday with lawmakers in an attempt to blunt the criticism, especially from Republicans.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, waved off reporters as he shuttled between the offices of Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "Please, guys. Can I just make the rounds up here?" he said, declining to answer further questions.

During their testimony, Gates and Rice declined to specify a time limit on the troop increase and were cautious about predicting rapid improvements in security in Baghdad, where most of the additional troops will be positioned, saying progress likely will only come gradually.

"I think that we all know that the stakes in Iraq are enormous and that the consequences of failure would also be enormous, not just for America and for Iraq, but for the entire region of the Middle East and indeed for the world," Rice told the senators.

The schedule, in which more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines would deploy to Iraq over several months, was designed to give Bush time to reconsider the increase should the government of al-Maliki fail to provide its share of security forces as promised, Rice said.

"I have met Prime Minister Maliki. I was with him in Amman. I saw his resolve," Rice said. "I think he knows that his government is, in a sense, on borrowed time, not just in terms of the American people, but in terms of the Iraqi people."

Still, she spoke directly about al-Maliki's failure to perform on his past promises to bring additional Iraqi troops into Baghdad. "They haven't performed in the past and so the president is absolutely right, and we have all been saying to them, 'You have to perform,' " she said.

Gates would not say when asked whether the planned U.S. troop increases over the next few months could be withheld if additional Iraqi units promised for Baghdad failed to materialize.

"We are going to have a number of opportunities to go back to the Iraqis and point out where they have failed to meet their commitments," he said, adding, "I think our assumption going forward is that they have every intention of making this work."

Pressed repeatedly by members of both parties about what steps the Bush administration would take if Iraq continued to balk, he added, "We would clearly have to relook at the strategy."

Gates said that the Pentagon was revising rules governing mobilization of Army National Guard and Reserve members so troops who have already completed a tour in Iraq in the past five years can now be sent back to Iraq if their unit is remobilized. But the new policy would aim to shorten the time Guard members were subsequently mobilized to a maximum of a year.

Gates also announced a large permanent increase in the active duty Army and Marine Corps, a repudiation of the approach of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who argued for keeping ground force levels low and insisted that authorization for any additional troops be temporary.

Under Bush's plan, the active duty Army total manpower over the next five years would grow to 547,000, an increase of 39,000 over the current level. In addition, the Marine Corps would grow to 202,000, an increase of 23,000. The expansions would have to be approved by Congress.

Democrats in both the House and Senate would not rule out eventually limiting funds for the war if Bush continued on a course they contend defies the will of Congress and the American public. But they say that possibility, which could open them to Republican attacks, will have to be faced later when an emergency spending request and Pentagon spending are considered in the spring and summer.

Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the Democratic chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that sets defense spending and the party's leading critic of the war, is exploring ways to attach conditions to a Pentagon measure.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said "a wide variety of ideas are bubbling forth," for how the party should respond to the president. But beyond voting on a resolution to symbolically oppose the Iraq plan, he said it remained unlikely Democrats could block the troop increase to Baghdad.

"If you were going to have a so-called surge, part of that is supposedly by keeping people there longer," Obey said. "It's pretty hard to shut off funds for troops who are already there, so it gets very, very complicated."

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Biden issued a sharp warning to the administration after Gates discussed recent raids against Iranians in Iraq, including one in Erbil early Thursday, and described them as part of a new effort "to root out the networks" involved in bringing Iranian-supplied explosive devices into Iraq.

Biden responded by saying that the vote to authorize the president to order the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein should not be used as a vehicle for mounting attacks inside Iran, even in pursuit of cells or networks assisting insurgents or sectarian militias.

"I just want the record to show — and I would like to have a legal response from the State Department if they think they have authority to pursue networks or anything else across the border into Iran and Iraq — that will generate a constitutional confrontation here in the Senate, I predict to you," Biden said.Also, the State Department announced on Thursday that Timothy Carney, a retired Foreign Service Office who served as a senior civilian American authority in Iraq for three months in 2003, is the new coordinator for Iraq reconstruction.

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