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Iraq plan a tough sell

WASHINGTON – After two days of testimony before Congress, the Bush administration’s top diplomat in Iraq and the top military commander of U.S. troops there made few inroads in their effort to convince skeptical lawmakers that the White House war strategy is working.

In appearances before two Senate committees Tuesday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker faced much harsher and pointed questioning than they had a day earlier in a visit to the House, where lawmakers focused on plans for winding down the U.S. troop surge.

By Tuesday, it was clear that although the withdrawal would remove 30,000 reinforcements by next summer, it would leave 130,000 troops in Iraq – a force size that troubled both Democrats and Republicans seeking re-election. The proposal would result in force levels equivalent to where they stood before the troop surge began.

President Bush will tell the nation Thursday evening that he plans to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq by as many as 30,000 by next summer, but will condition cuts on continued progress, according to the Associated Press.

In a 15-minute address from the White House at 6 p.m. PDT, the president will say he understands Americans’ deep concerns about U.S. involvement in Iraq and their desire to bring the troops home, administration officials said. Bush will say that after hearing from Petraeus and Crocker, he has decided on a way forward that will reduce the U.S. military presence but not abandon Iraq to chaos, according to the officials.

The address will stake out a conciliatory tone toward Congress. But while mirroring Petraeus’ strategy, Bush will place more conditions on reductions than his general did, insisting that conditions on the ground must warrant cuts and that now-unforeseen events could change the plan.

Petraeus recommended that a 2,000-member Marine unit return home this month without replacement. That would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers. Under the general’s plan, another four combat brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008.

At a White House meeting Tuesday with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, congressional leaders criticized the administration plan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she told Bush that Petraeus’ presentation sounded like “a plan for at least a 10-year, high-level U.S. presence in Iraq.” She said the president must explain “why our country should have to continue to make that commitment.”

A critical question for congressional Democrats seeking earlier and more drastic troop withdrawals is how many Republicans will keep backing the current White House strategy.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who is up for re-election next year, asked Tuesday for objective measures of progress.

“Americans want to see light at the end of tunnel,” Coleman told Petraeus and Crocker. “We need to see some plan out there.”

Coleman has opposed Democratic withdrawal proposals all year, but he was an early critic of the surge and was one of seven Republicans who voted for a measure in July to mandate more down time for troops.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., who has not supported any of the Democratic measures opposing the surge, strongly criticized the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and said she would support what she called “action-forcing measures.”

The comments indicated that Dole, who also is facing re-election, might be open to backing a Democratic effort to force a change in the U.S. military strategy. In the House on Monday, few Democrats pushed Petraeus on his recommendation to keep high levels of troops in Iraq. But on Tuesday, Senate leaders said they would advance legislation to mandate a swifter withdrawal than envisioned by the Bush administration.

“To merely remove the surge troops is no progress at all. We’ll be back in the same position we were two years ago,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.

Democrats have failed all year to muster enough Republican support to force the White House to change course.

Over the past two days, a number of GOP lawmakers have cited the progress outlined by Petraeus to justify their opposition to a legislated troop withdrawal.

But the doubts expressed by Dole, Coleman and others could provide a renewed opportunity for Democrats.

It is unclear how much more GOP support Democrats will be able to win when they restart the war debate, probably next week. Durbin said Tuesday that Senate Democrats were reaching out to about a half-dozen Republicans in one-on-one conversations.

For most of the day Tuesday, many members of both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees used their time at the microphone to speak out rather than ask questions.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., an opponent of the war, suggested that Petraeus was being overly optimistic about the progress since the troop buildup.

Referring to a meeting with the general when he was in charge of training Iraqi security forces in 2005, Boxer suggested he had been unrealistically positive about the ability of the Iraqi military. She cited that meeting in questioning his presentation Tuesday.

“I ask you to take off your rosy glasses,” she said.

Democrats sought to press Crocker and Petraeus on how long U.S. troops would be in Iraq, a question that mostly was absent Monday. Both U.S. officials demurred.

“I think in the past we have set some expectations that simply couldn’t be met, and I’m trying not to do that,” Crocker said.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., questioned the “bottom-up” reconciliation plans being promoted by the administration in some areas of Iraq. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the strategy of courting the support of local ethnic and sectarian leaders amounted to “tribalism” and said the nation-building effort had faltered.

In an unexpected exchange, Warner asked Petraeus if the Iraq mission was making the United States safer.

“Sir, I don’t know, actually,” Petraeus said. “I have not sat down and sorted (it) out in my own mind.”

Warner responded: “I hope you do consider it very carefully, as I know you will.”


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