- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Republicans increasingly are backing a new approach in the Iraq war that could become the party’s mantra come September. It would mean narrowly limited missions for U.S. troops in Iraq but let President Bush decide when troops should leave.

So far, the idea has not attracted the attention of Democratic leaders. They are under substantial pressure by antiwar groups to consider only legislation that orders troops from Iraq.

But the Republican approach quickly is becoming the attractive alternative for Republican lawmakers who want to challenge Mr. Bush on the unpopular war without backtracking from their assertions that it would be disastrous to set deadlines for troop withdrawals.

“This is a necessary adjustment in the national debate to reintroduce bipartisanship, to stop the ‘gotcha’ politics that are going on that seem to be driven by fringes on both sides and change the terms of the discussion,” said Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania.

Mr. English is among the more than 40 Republicans in the House and Senate who are sponsoring legislation intended to shift the mission of U.S. troops. Several other Republican lawmakers, facing tight elections next year and a strong antiwar sentiment in their districts, say they are considering this approach.

“Settling Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries over who occupies what street in Baghdad is not in the vital interest of the United States,” said Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican, who added that she is considering her options. “And we should only have Americans in harm’s way where there are U.S. interests at stake.”

The top military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, is expected to tell Congress in September that more time is needed to determine whether a massive U.S.-led security push initiated in January is working.

The message is unlikely to be well-received on Capitol Hill. Democrats have criticized the strategy as escalating a failing war; Republicans say they want to see progress by fall.

Republican support has proved crucial to Mr. Bush in stalling antiwar proposals in the Democrat-run Congress. Legislation ordering U.S. troops out of Iraq has passed repeatedly in the House only to sink in the Senate, where Republicans threaten a filibuster and Democrats fall short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.

House Democrats plan to try again this week with a bill that would begin a pullout this fall. Republicans are expected to overwhelmingly oppose it.

If Mr. Bush cannot convince Republican lawmakers by September that he is on the right track, more Republicans are expected to demand change.

But many of them, long on record as opposing an end date to combat, say it makes sense to focus on the mission instead. Yet this approach would amount to a de facto mandate for troop withdrawals because of the large number of forces assigned to combat missions.

The goal, they say, is to end the U.S.-led daily patrols in the streets of Baghdad and restrict troops to fighting al-Qaeda terrorists and training Iraqi security forces.

“If you do that you’ve greatly reduced the loss of life, which is what matters most,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican.