Democrats revise strategy on Iraq

Democratic strategists yesterday said a revised proposal to begin withdrawing some U.S. troops from Iraq by year’s end is a more appealing campaign position than an immediate pullout that draws little voter support.

“That is how the Democrats are going to frame this debate for the voters and that’s the choice before them in this election,” former Clinton administration official John Cowan said of the proposed withdrawal, which was outlined Monday in a letter to President Bush from top congressional Democrats.

With polls showing that only a third of Democratic voters support immediate troop withdrawals, Democrats yesterday said their latest plan would offer voters a deadline-free choice between Mr. Bush’s indefinite “stay the course” approach and “a new strategy” to pressure the Iraqi government to handle more of the fighting on their own.

Republicans condemned the Iraq withdrawal plan as a “cut-and-run” proposal and an election-year sop to the Democratic Party’s left wing.

“Waving a white flag in Iraq may appeal to the far left, but it will embolden the enemy, encourage more terrorism and make America less secure,” said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The letter to Mr. Bush — signed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and ranking Democrats on key congressional committees — calls for taking “a new direction” in Iraq by beginning a “phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq … before the end of 2006.”

Pointedly avoiding any mention of a date for the removal of all forces from Iraq, the letter calls for limiting the future mission of U.S. troops to counterterrorism, training and logistical support for the Iraqi army and protecting U.S. personnel.

It was seen as a reluctant recognition by House and Senate Democratic leaders that a precipitous pullout still remains unpopular among most Americans, as shown in a Gallup Poll.

“Only 19 percent of Americans favor an immediate pullout” and “only 30 percent of Democrats favor that option,” Gallup reported at the end of last month. That poll also found that 38 percent of Americans support staying in Iraq “as many years to do this as are needed” and an additional 7 percent want to send in more troops.

Although Republicans denounced the withdrawal plan, the proposal drew support from a cross-section of the Democratic Party’s anti-war liberals as well as from more conservative Democrats who oppose setting any deadline for pulling out of Iraq.

The letter was signed by both Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania — the Democrats’ leading anti-war spokesman, who had called in November for a full pullout within six months — and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a party hawk who opposed Mr. Murtha’s position.

Mr. Murtha said in a statement Tuesday that the party’s campaign position on Iraq validated his earlier position and that he was satisfied that his colleagues agree “we must change course in Iraq.”

Mr. Cowan, president of the Third Way — a Democratic think tank that opposed Mr. Murtha’s calls for an immediate pullout in Iraq — embraced the letter’s proposal as “the only way to turn up the heat and that means sending a clear message to the Iraqi government and its army that they must accelerate their transition and stand on their own.”

Republicans said the positioning on Iraq had more to do with internal Democratic Party politics than with a policy position.

“The base of the Democratic Party has always been more of a dove wing, and they’re kind of going back to their roots,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. “Murtha’s gained ground within the Democratic Party and everybody’s hopping on his bandwagon.”

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