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Democrat Outlines Strategy to Unite Iraq

October 22, 2005|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Carl Levin, a leading congressional Democrat, said Friday that the United States' continued military presence in Iraq should be contingent upon greater unity among that country's deeply divided Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political factions.

The Michigan senator, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent visitor to Iraq, said that one of the few points on which the main Iraqi ethnic and sectarian political groups agree was that all want U.S. forces to remain in the country. The Bush administration should use that consensus to forge political compromise, Levin argued.

"I believe we should tell the Iraqis that if they fail to reach such a solution by the timeline they have set forth, we will consider a timetable for the reduction of U.S. forces," he told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "I use the word 'consider' because we must reserve the right to look at the facts as they exist at that time."

Levin spoke at a time of growing anxiety among congressional Democrats and Republicans about the war's course, the apparent absence of a clearly defined exit strategy and an erosion of confidence in President Bush's leadership on the issue.

This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed to allay concerns during her three hours of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senior Pentagon officials recently said that U.S. forces should edge out of the lead combat role to break what one officer called an Iraqi dependence on the U.S. military.

"The longer that the coalition bears the brunt of the counterinsurgency fight, the longer we'll bear the brunt of the counterinsurgency fight," Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told a Senate hearing last month. He added, "This is about dependency."

Still, Army Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, commander of U.S.-led troops in Baghdad, predicted Friday that it would take up to two years for the Iraqi army to conduct operations on its own.

Although Levin criticized Bush for extending what he called an "open, unlimited, unconditional commitment" to Iraqis, he stopped well short of demanding an immediate pullout as advocated by antiwar groups.

As such, Levin's remarks were viewed by some analysts as an attempt by the Democrats to stake out a middle ground on the Iraq issue -- opposed to the administration, yet still distanced from the antiwar movement.

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