- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy yesterday said U.S. troops, instead of defeating the insurgency in Iraq, are spawning it, and he called for immediate withdrawal of 12,000 troops after this weekend’s election and a complete pullout by early next year.

“There will be more serious violence if we continue our present dangerous and reckless course. It will not be easy to extricate ourselves from Iraq, but we must begin,” said the Massachusetts Democrat and leading liberal voice in the Senate, who is the highest-profile lawmaker to call for withdrawal.

Speaking at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in the District, Mr. Kennedy said that U.S. troops and officials are seen by Iraqis as an occupational force, rather than a means to peace, and they are the reason violence is escalating.

“The men and women of our armed services are serving honorably and with great courage under extreme conditions, but their indefinite presence is fanning the flames of conflict,” he said.

About 150,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq. More than 1,400 have been killed since the Iraq invasion, and an additional 10,000 have been wounded — numbers that Mr. Kennedy said were comparable to Vietnam in 1965.

“We must learn from our mistakes,” he said. “We must recognize what a large and growing number of Iraqis now believe — the war in Iraq has become a war against the American occupation.”

President Bush’s supporters are hoping that the insurgency will falter after this weekend’s historic elections, but Mr. Kennedy said the administration has been wrong every time that it has predicted better times just around the corner.

“Saddam’s capture was supposed to quell the violence. It didn’t,” he said. “The transfer of sovereignty was supposed to be the breakthrough. It wasn’t. The military operation in Fallujah was supposed to break the back of the insurgency. It didn’t.”

He also said the insurgency has grown in recent months — from 5,000 fighters in mid-2004 to more than 20,000.

His call for withdrawal did not gain much support among his colleagues yesterday.

“What we need, in my judgment, in the interests of the United States, is to stabilize Iraq,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told CNN’s “Inside Politics.” “If we turn tail and pull out, the place would erupt into civil war, there would be all kind of chaos.”

And a spokesman for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said the situation calls for resolve.

“Senator Warner believes that this is not the time to cut and run in Iraq and that our presence there should be dictated by events, not by arbitrary timetables,” said John Ullyot, the senator’s spokesman.

The White House was dismissive of Mr. Kennedy’s suggestions.

“I think his views are well-known,” said spokesman Scott McClellan when asked about the speech yesterday. “The president’s views are well-known as well.”

In a press conference on Wednesday, Mr. Bush said Iraq is watching the actions of the United States and “wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as a democracy evolves. The enemy would like nothing more than the United States to precipitously pull out and withdraw before the Iraqis are prepared to defend themselves.”

He also said progress is being made, particularly through the upcoming elections.

But Mr. Kennedy said the current path simply won’t work.

“Resolve is fine, but it must be used in the right way. We need to win back the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, not continue the same failed policy,” he said. “Our military presence has become part of the problem, not the solution. We need to convince the Iraqi people that we don’t intend to stay forever. We ought to start negotiating a drawdown now with the new government.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, wasn’t prepared to go as far as Mr. Kennedy in calling for a set plan for withdrawal.

“While Senator Reid doesn’t believe we should set a specific date or schedule, he does believe that this current insurgency must be defeated, that political as well as military tools must be employed, and that eventually it will be up to the Iraqi people to secure and govern themselves,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid.

Mr. Kennedy’s call stands at odds with recent statements from other senior Democrats.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in December that plans for 150,000 troops in Iraq were not enough, and he criticized the administration for not having that level in the run-up to the Nov. 2 U.S. election.

Mr. Biden was traveling overseas yesterday, and a spokesman didn’t return a call for comment.

But some Democrats said Mr. Kennedy’s prescription was right on. Fellow Massachusetts lawmaker, Rep. Martin T. Meehan, said it is about time for a re-examination of policy in Iraq and said Congress must drive that debate.

“A consensus is building that America needs a realistic exit strategy,” he said. “I look forward to working with Senator Kennedy and our colleagues in Congress to reverse our failed policy and put Iraq’s future in the hands of Iraqis.”

Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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