- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

Top House and Senate Democrats yesterday said they oppose boosting the number of troops in Iraq, giving them a jump on President Bush’s speech next week detailing a new war strategy and setting a roadblock in front of one of the major options he is considering.

“Surging forces is a strategy that you have already tried and that has already failed. Like many current and former military leaders, we believe that trying again would be a serious mistake,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote in a letter designed to frame the debate as Mr. Bush tries to devise what the White House calls a new way forward in Iraq.

Meanwhile, in a shake-up in advance of the speech, Mr. Bush nominated a new deputy secretary of state, director of national intelligence, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and head of Central Command, the post that oversees the broader war on terrorism in the Middle East.

“It makes sense to go ahead and make sure that you’re going to have your command team that is going to be in place as you’re working on this new way forward and enacting it,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said, adding that some of the outgoing military commanders’ jobs would have expired in the middle of implementing the new strategy.

Mr. Snow said the president is “moving in a direction” toward a revamped strategy, but is still listening for ideas.

Now, though, he is facing a challenge from Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, and Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, at the beginning of the new Congress.

Their letter puts them out in front of Mr. Bush’s speech next week, filling the vacuum created as the president works out his new strategy and earning them part of the discussion on the Sunday political talk shows.

But it also comes on the heels of criticism that Democrats are ignoring the concerns of the anti-war faction of their party, and just days after an anti-war demonstration led by activist Cindy Sheehan drowned out a Democratic press conference on Capitol Hill.

Asked about the leaders’ letter, Mr. Snow said the administration shares some of the Democrats’ goals, such as renewed diplomatic efforts, and chose to focus on the section where the leaders said they “want to do everything we can to help Iraq succeed in the future.”

“The ultimate objective here is not to engage in sparring, but to engage in an open dialogue with people on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. Snow said.

In their letter, the two leaders pointed to Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, who said in congressional testimony that bringing in more troops would run counter to trying to get the Iraqis to do more.

Gen. Abizaid lost his job in yesterday’s shake-up — his retirement was announced by the Pentagon — though Mr. Snow said the administration still values his counsel. Adm. William J. Fallon will replace him at Central Command.

Meanwhile, Gen. George Casey will be moved from commander of U.S forces in Iraq to become Army chief of staff. He will be replaced in Iraq by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus.

The letter is just one part of the Democrats flexing their newfound muscle on foreign policy and the strategy in Iraq.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, announced a schedule of four weeks of hearings to look at U.S. strategy in Iraq, while Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s immigration and refugees subcommittee, will hold a hearing on Iraqi refugees.

If Mr. Bush does choose to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq — something Mr. Snow said had not been decided yet — he will have the backing of two prominent senators: Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent.

Speaking together at the American Enterprise Institute, the two lawmakers endorsed a strategy of increasing troops and shifting from training Iraqi security forces to protecting the Iraqi people. Mr. McCain said that the increase must be significant and sustained, and that Americans must be prepared for more casualties, but that the fight is necessary.

“There is somehow the belief, that I don’t quite comprehend, that we just come home and then it’s over,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Lieberman warned that leaving Iraq at this juncture would lead to a complete collapse of the country, chaos that would spread across the region and inflame greater Islamic extremism.

Both men also endorsed the change in military leadership.

The military shake-up was coupled yesterday with Mr. Bush nominating John D. Negroponte to become the deputy secretary of state, and nominating retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell to fill Mr. Negroponte’s current slot as director of national intelligence.

Jon Ward and Sharon Behn contributed to this article.

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