WASHINGTON – Democrats poised to take control of Congress said Sunday they will press to begin a phased U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq within four to six months, as part of an agenda aimed at overhauling key aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
“First order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee next year.
Senior White House officials countered that setting timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals would weaken the Iraq 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.
White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten indicated on ABC that President Bush would block legislation that calls for a scheduled withdrawal.
“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 the White House was “willing to talk about anything” and 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 headed by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton who have been charged with developing new proposals for how to proceed in Iraq.
The push for a phased pullout, an idea long rejected by the Bush administration, appears to be gaining momentum. Senior military officials recently have voiced increasing concern that the security benefits of keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq are outweighed by the significant downsides of a heavy American presence. Among them is a 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,” said Levin, who appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”