WASHINGTON — When he came home from Vietnam, John P. Murtha had two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and -- unlike many other vets -- no desire to protest the war.
After he won a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania in 1974, he became one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, using his position on the House Appropriations Committee to help lavish the armed forces with money. And when President Bush decided to wage war on Saddam Hussein, perhaps no Democrat was a firmer ally.
So it sent a jolt through Congress on Thursday when Murtha stood before a bank of television cameras and announced tearfully that he had decided it was time to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. And not soon. Now.
"Our military's done everything that has been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily," he said. "It's time to bring the troops home."
As troop casualties have mounted, a small number of senators and House members of both parties have begun to urge their colleagues to demand an Iraq exit strategy from the administration. But of those, only Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) was willing to say the deployment should begin soon.
Murtha, 73, put himself firmly out in front of his colleagues by calling for the withdrawal to start now -- a process he estimated could be completed in six months.
"I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy -- immediately redeploy," Murtha said. "No schedule which can be changed. Nothing that's controlled by the Iraqis. This is an immediate redeployment of our American forces because they have become the target."
Congressional anxiety over the war has risen as public support for the war has plummeted in recent polls. This week, the Senate adopted a resolution urging that Iraqis take more control of their country during 2006 to hasten the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. And Murtha's dramatic announcement was likely to intensify the debate.
The administration and GOP congressional leaders quickly denounced his proposal.
A statement issued by the White House as Bush was traveling in Asia described Murtha as "a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America." It continued: "So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he was saddened by Murtha's about-face.
"Rep. Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run," Hastert said in a statement, using a phrase other Republicans -- including Bush -- have adopted in characterizing calls for withdrawal.
Hastert added: "To add insult to injury, this is done while the president is on foreign soil."
Democratic leaders praised Murtha's courage in taking an unpopular position but stopped short of endorsing it.
"Two-and-a-half years after the president said 'mission accomplished,' we still don't know what the mission is," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "So the focus really shouldn't be on Mr. Murtha. It should be on the president of the United States and his failed policy there."
Murtha appeared unfazed by the furor he caused. A former carwash owner from a region of western Pennsylvania once dotted with coal mines and steel factories, Murtha is famously iconoclastic, charting his own course with little regard for what others think.
He tends to give reporters the brushoff. He has trouble keeping his eyes focused on a TV camera lens. To his colleagues and constituents, the power he wields over the defense budget as ranking Democrat of the defense appropriations subcommittee -- and the defense projects he sends home to his district as a result -- more than make up for any lack of polish.
It wasn't polls that convinced the former Marine drill instructor that it was time to change course in Iraq, he explained in an interview. It was his weekly visits to wounded troops in Washington-area hospitals.
"Let me tell you something: We're charged, Congress is charged, with sending our sons and daughters into battle. And it's our responsibility, our obligation, to speak out for them," Murtha said. "That's why I'm speaking out."
In a 30-minute news conference, Murtha repeatedly told stories about wounded troops. He spoke of a Seabee, paralyzed from the neck down, surrounded by his wife, mother and three children, all crying because he would be immobile for life; of the father of a wounded Marine, himself a veteran, who sought the congressman's help to bring a second son home from the war; of a soldier who lost both hands because he was hit by shrapnel from a bomblet dropped by U.S. troops.
That soldier's mother complained that her son was ineligible for a Purple Heart because the attack was "friendly."