- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday said he will try to block President Bush from sending an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq, calling it “the absolute wrong strategy.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware plans three straight weeks of congressional hearings on Iraq policy next month in hopes of persuading the president to abandon a plan he is thought to be seriously considering.

“We’ve already broken Iraq. We’re about to break the United States military” by sending more troops, said Mr. Biden, who is seeking the 2008 presidential nomination.

Mr. Bush early next month will announce a new strategy for the war, and is thought to favor a temporary increase in troop levels in what has been dubbed a “surge.”

Mr. Biden said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has agreed to testify before his panel after the president announces his plans. Other likely panel witnesses are Iraq Study Group leaders James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, and new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The committee also will hear from a variety of academics, former and current administration officials, military leaders and Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, who has called for formally partitioning Iraq into three sovereign nations.

The idea is to hear from all those who “have rational although different views as to how to proceed in Iraq,” in an attempt to build consensus, Mr. Biden said.

“Hopefully there is still some opportunity to influence President Bush’s decision,” he said.

Voters dealt Mr. Bush a blow last month in midterm elections that propelled Democrats to House and Senate majorities. Soon after the elections, the Iraq Study Group recommended the U.S. begin a withdrawal of combat troops.

Incoming Democratic leaders promise a change of course on the war, which yesterday reached a death toll surpassing that of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Many Democrats oppose increasing the number of troops in Iraq, where nearly 150,000 are already stationed.

Republicans so far seem divided on a surge, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona pushing the idea and Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota saying he can’t support sending more troops.

Mr. Biden favors beginning to withdraw U.S. troops, and thinks one way to get to that point is to divide Iraq into three mostly autonomous regions with a weak central government in Baghdad. He notes the Iraqi constitution calls for such a federal system, and says it should be partnered with a plan for sharing in oil revenues.

Mr. Biden worked with Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in proposing the plan in May. He said yesterday he will call Mr. Gelb as a witness.

The three weeks of hearings will begin Jan. 9, will run three to four days per week, and will include discussion of the need to bring Iraq’s neighbors to the negotiating table, Mr. Biden said.

He said Republicans should realize the Iraq situation holds huge political implications for their party in 2008 — both in congressional elections and in the race for the White House.

“The last thing that John McCain or any other Republican … running for president wants to inherit is a war in Iraq that is even further deteriorating than it is now,” Mr. Biden said.

He said Democrats cannot remain silent on war policy, but noted he thinks it is the Republicans on the panel who can help pressure Mr. Bush into changing his mind.

“There is nothing the United States Congress can do by a piece of legislation to alter the course of a war the president decides,” he said.

Mr. Biden recently told Mr. Bush as much during a visit to the White House, saying: “Mr. President, this is your war.”

Balancing the personalities — and competing potential presidential contenders from both parties who sit on his committee — might be easier said than done. Among the possible hopefuls on the panel are Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

When asked how having so many possible 2008 candidates at the dais would affect these hearings, Mr. Biden laughed.

“I hope it’s not going to have a lot of impact, although I am sure there are going to be folks who will prepare more thoroughly,” he said.

Also expected to be an outspoken voice on the panel is Sen.-elect James H. Webb Jr., an anti-war Virginia Democrat who unseated Republican George Allen last month.

Mr. Bush announced this month he would seek an expanded armed forces, adding thousands of troops to the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

The Washington Times reported last week that senior military officials and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are pressuring Mr. Bush to seek a larger military and that the Joint Chiefs are “cool at best” to the Iraq Study Group proposal.

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