- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

A key House Democrat said yesterday that U.S. troops should immediately begin withdrawing from Iraq because they have achieved their military goals but have now become the single unifying factor for the insurgents.

Rep. John P. Murtha, a retired Marine Corps colonel who received a Bronze Star with Combat “V,” two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry in Vietnam, said U.S. forces could withdraw in six months and leave Iraq to rebuild.

“The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress. Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency,” Mr. Murtha said. “I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy.”

Mr. Murtha’s call marks an escalation in the congressional debate over the U.S. presence in Iraq, and comes two days after the Senate voted for a measure to require President Bush to regularly report to Congress on progress in Iraq.

Republicans said Mr. Murtha played right into the hands of terrorists.

“The liberal leadership have put politics ahead of sound fiscal and national security policy, and what they have done is cooperated with our enemies and are emboldening our enemies,” said Rep. Geoff Davis, Kentucky Republican and a former Army officer.

Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican and a Vietnam POW for nearly seven years, said: “We’ve got to support our troops to the hilt and see this mission through.”

The White House issued a statement from South Korea saying Mr. Murtha “has a record of supporting a strong America. So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of [filmmaker] Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists.”

Mr. Murtha took a rare personal shot at Vice President Dick Cheney, who used a Wednesday night speech to accuse Democrats of “dishonest and reprehensible” politicking on Iraq.

“I like guys who’ve never been there that criticize us who’ve been there,” Mr. Murtha said. “I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.”

Other Republicans said Mr. Murtha was essentially calling for a retreat.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said Mr. Murtha’s proposal was “the highest insult to the brave men and women serving overseas.” Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said Democrats had made a mistake.

“I think they’ve underestimated the toughness of the American people and the understanding that if we don’t change the world, the world is going to change us,” he said.

Democrats, who were split three years ago on whether to go to war, have found unity on criticizing the war the president has directed. Even though Mr. Bush is overseas, he and Democrats have engaged this week in a long-distance debate over prewar intelligence and Iraq’s weapons programs.

Before addressing reporters, Mr. Murtha spoke to about 100 Democrats at a House Democratic Caucus meeting, where he received a standing ovation and members said nobody rose to oppose his call for withdrawal.

Though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would not specifically endorse withdrawal, Mr. Murtha is one of her top lieutenants on defense matters and her office helped tout and organize the press conference and distributed Mr. Murtha’s remarks and his resolution calling for withdrawal.

“His speech was a watershed event, I think, for our caucus, for our Congress, and for our country,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “No person who listened to Mr. Murtha could do so without recognizing our need to re-evaluate our policy in Iraq.”

But the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, was silent on Mr. Murtha’s speech. Mr. Hoyer was among the staunchest supporters of the war when it began, and even though he released a statement on other business before the House, his spokeswoman said he had no comment on Mr. Murtha’s call for withdrawal.

Few high-profile Democrats agreed with Mr. Murtha’s plan for withdraw within six months, but many of them said it should start soon.

Mr. Murtha, one of 81 Democrats who voted to authorize force against Iraq in October 2002, said he came to the decision that the U.S. must withdraw after meeting with troops in Iraq and wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

At his press conference, tears came to his eyes when he talked about having met one man who had been blinded and lost both hands while trying to dismantle U.S.-dropped bomblets.

“His mother said, because they were friendly bomblets, they wouldn’t give him a Purple Heart,” Mr. Murtha said. “I met with the commandant [of the Marine Corps]. I said, if you don’t give him a Purple Heart, I’ll give him one of mine. And they gave him a Purple Heart.”

Mr. Murtha is the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee on defense, and Democratic aides said he is considered “wired” into the Pentagon. Mr. Murtha said the commanders and the troops can’t speak freely, so that’s what he is doing.

“We are here. We have an obligation to speak for them,” he said.

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