- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Senate Democrats yesterday called for withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq by April 30 — less than two months after a similar measure was soundly defeated — as the White House dispatched its top war advisers to Capitol Hill to embolden Republican allies.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said setting a troop withdrawal timetable will force Iraqi political leaders to take responsibility for their own country.

“The legislation that we are proposing … would give commanders the flexibility to the pace of reductions and the units to be reduced, and I think it’s the appropriate way to go,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, who co-sponsored the measure with Mr. Levin.

Republicans leaders called the maneuver premature, saying that President Bush’s surge strategy is starting to pay dividends and that any major changes shouldn’t occur before Gen. David H. Petraeus provides his September report on the state of the war.

“September is the time when this issue will be reopened. Why we have to go through with it again in the month of July is frankly a puzzlement to me,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

A key progress report being briefed to lawmakers tomorrow will say that the Iraqi government has not met any of its targets for reform, which include establishing laws to disarm militias, giving equal legal protections to all sects and sharing oil revenue among the Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis.

But the report said some progress has been made in about a half-dozen areas of the country, including reducing violence in Anbar province, according to the Associated Press.

“The Petraeus strategy — is fundamentally different. … We’re getting out of Baghdad, out behind fortresses, out in the community,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who visited Iraq last week. “The central [Iraq] government’s dysfunction is real. … However, when it comes to defeating al Qaeda in Iraq, not only is it possible, it’s inevitable to continue doing what we’re doing.”

Mr. Bush yesterday told a Cleveland business group that he will rely on the assessments of military commanders on the ground — not politicians — to decide how to proceed, as senators in Washington engaged in a sometimes fiery debate over the war.

“We just started. We got all the troops there a couple of weeks ago,” the president told the Greater Cleveland Partnership, a coalition of Northeast Ohio companies.

But Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware railed against the administration for failing to respond to the realities of the “civil war” in Iraq that is killing U.S. troops and ignoring Americans’ growing opposition to the war.

Americans “want this war to end, they want this mission to end,” Mrs. Boxer said. “The don’t want our troops in the middle of a civil war getting killed and getting maimed.”

Democrats have cited dissatisfaction voiced by a couple of prominent Republicans as evidence that they’re picking up support in their ongoing war strategy battle with Mr. Bush, but neither Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, nor Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, voiced support for the new withdrawal amendment yesterday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he expects nearly all Democrats to vote for the amendment as early as today. But it does not appear to have the 60 votes needed to get a final up-or-down vote.

Mr. Bush sent “war czar” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute and the president’s National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley to meet with Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi, Mr. Graham, Mr. McCain, Jon Kyl of Arizona and others.

“I think you will see from the president, today and here forward, an absolute resolve … to say, we’re committed to allowing General Petraeus to be able to do his job till September, that we’re not going to break,” Mr. Graham said.

The Levin-Reed proposal, an amendment to the $649 billion defense authorization bill, calls for a reduction in U.S. armed forces within 120 days of its enactment.

Most troops would be required to leave Iraq by April 30, although a limited number of troops would remain for an undetermined amount of time to protect U.S. and coalition interests, to train Iraqi security forces, and for counterterrorism operations.

“There are no indications that the Iraqis intend to compromise without such pressure, and the best way to promote progress by September is to vote for our amendment in July,” Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Levin and Mr. Reed declined to give estimates on how many troops would remain after a withdrawal deadline.

“That would deflect the debate from where we believe it must be, and that is: Do we want to change course in Iraq or not?” Mr. Levin said.

The amendment differs from one introduced in May that set a firm date for troop reductions and cut off war funds by March 31 to most military operations in Iraq. That proposal died in a 67-29 procedural vote, with 47 Republicans, 19 Democrats and one independent voting to block the plan, and followed a failed effort by Democratic leaders to include troop withdrawal dates in an emergency war funding bill.

“Whether or not [setting a withdrawal deadline] loses a vote or picks up some votes, we just simply don’t know,” Mr. Levin said. “But it’s important, if we’re going to end the open-ended commitment, that there must be an endpoint where the transition would be completed.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she will hold a vote this week on a bill that would begin withdrawing troops within 120 days, with a full withdrawal deadline of April 1.

“The situation on the ground in Iraq is worsening, and the Iraqi government has failed to meet the benchmarks set in law,” the California Democrat said. “This week, every member of the House will have an opportunity to vote to set a new direction in Iraq.”

The Senate yesterday also debated a proposal by Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Virginia Democrat, to set a minimum length of rest time for troops returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan before they can be redeployed to war.

Mr. Webb said the measure will ensure that U.S. troops are mentally and physically prepared to return to a war zone, but Republicans countered that it’s another move to undermine Mr. Bush’s role as commander in chief. A vote is expected today.

Senate Democrats say they will offer several other war-altering amendments and bills in the next couple of weeks, including a bipartisan amendment that would make the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group the basis for future U.S. strategy in Iraq.

The measure — proposed by Sens. Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican — sets conditions that could lead to redeployment of combat troops by as early as March 2008 if diplomatic, infrastructure and security benchmarks are met.

“The surge is not working,” Mr. Reid said. “No matter how many different ways you explain it, it hasn’t worked. Six months, 600 dead Americans, $60 billion.”

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