- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) — In case he wasn’t sure already, President Bush got an answer from Democrats on his Iraq plan: No way.

Even before Bush’s address to the nation today, Senate Democrats rejected a four-star general’s recommendation to keep some 130,000 troops in Iraq through next summer. They also sought legislation that would limit the mission of U.S. forces.

Their proposal was not expected to set a deadline to end the war, as many Democrats want, but restrict troops to narrow objectives: training Iraq’s military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists, Democratic party officials told Associated Press yesterday.

The goal is to attract enough Republicans to break the 60-vote threshold in the Senate needed to end a filibuster. Democrats have proved unable to do that since they took control of Congress eight months ago.

“I call on the Senate Republicans to not walk lockstep as they have with the president for years in this war,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a news conference. “It’s time to change. It’s the president’s war. At this point it also appears clear it’s also the Senate Republicans’ war.”

Democrats struggled to regain momentum in the war debate after two days of testimony by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Petraeus said the 30,000 troop buildup begun this year had produced some gains and needed more time. He recommended slowly reversing the buildup, drawing down about 5,500 soldiers and Marines by year’s end and aiming for a force of 130,000 next summer.

Reid and other Democrats said that proposal does not go far enough.

“It creates and provides an illusion of change in an effort to take the wind out of the sails of those of us who want to truly change course in Iraq,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

In a challenge to Petraeus’ assessment, Reid said the “situation on the ground in Iraq has not changed at all.” The lawmaker later acknowledged gains in Anbar province, “but it’s like the big balloon that you push on one side and it comes out someplace else.”

Petraeus’ assessment inflamed Democrats, but assuaged many Republicans. It did lead to tough questions from several Republican skeptics, but most GOP lawmakers said they were reluctant to impose a firm timetable.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., seen as one of the potential swing votes, said he was working with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., on legislation that would put Petraeus’ recommendations into law.

Absent a new political climate, Democrats are in a tough position: They can continue to insist on a hardline position and fail, letting weeks go by without passing anti-war legislation, or they soften their stance.

At issue in talks among Reid and Senate Democrats was how far they should go in forcing a new mission for troops without losing support from various political sides, according to congressional aides familiar with the meeting in Reid’s office.

Petraeus, in testimony this week, argued against shifting troops from their current mission of securing the population and counterterrorism to one focused strictly on counterterror and training the Iraqi security forces.

“Making that change now would, in our view, be premature,” he said. “We have learned before that there is a real danger in handing over tasks to the Iraqi Security Forces before their capacity and local conditions warrant.”

If the legislation were nonbinding and only urged Bush to refocus the mission, the bill could lose support from more liberal Democrats.

On the contrary, if the bill ordered the mission changed by a certain date, it might turn off Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine, Coleman and other GOP moderates.

Reid declined to discuss details, saying only that Democrats would offer four to six amendments “to change the course of the war” when the Senate takes up a defense bill next week. One probably would come from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., requiring that troops spend as much time home as they do in combat.

Among the Republicans working with Reid and Levin are Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; both long ago turned against the war.

Bush spoke yesterday by telephone with Petraeus and Crocker and thanked them for their service. The president planned an 18-minute address from the White House at 9 p.m. EDT tonight to endorse Petraeus’ recommendations, according to administration officials. The White House planned to release a written status report tomorrow on the troop buildup, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush’s speech was not yet final.

While mirroring Petraeus’ strategy, Bush will place more conditions on reductions than his general did, insisting that conditions on the ground must warrant cuts and unforeseen events could change the plan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that stabilizing Iraq included “the territorial security of Iraq” with respect to its Mideast neighbors, especially Iran.

“Iran is a very troublesome neighbor,” she said on NBC’s “Today” show. “Iran is prepared to fill the vacuum” if the United States leaves Iraq.

In a joint press conference with Crocker yesterday, Petraeus said Iranians appear to be trying to create a like Hezbollah-like organization in Iraq that they could use to gain influence inside Iraq.

Tomorrow, the president intends to go to a Marine base in Quantico, Va., outside Washington, to talk about his Iraq policy, the White House announced.

Vice President Dick Cheney plans to speak about Iraq tomorrow at appearances at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., and at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

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