WASHINGTON — Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the influential former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday urged President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq to send a message that the United States is running out of patience with the government in Baghdad.
Warner, who has been critical of the troop buildup ordered by Bush in January, said he was not ready to back a Democratic-led effort in Congress to order withdrawals. However, his blunt assessment of the Iraqi government's performance could lead to an erosion of GOP support for the president's war strategy at a crucial time.
A handful of Republican senators already have called on Bush to change his strategy. With Congress scheduled to receive a progress report on the war in mid-September, Democrats are preparing to mount a new effort to set a timetable for troop withdrawals.
Warner declined to join Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in calling for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to step down. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Thursday also demanded that the Iraqi leader quit.
Returning from a visit to Iraq, Warner urged Bush to announce next month "the first step in a withdrawal," bringing perhaps 5,000 of the nearly 162,000 troops home by Christmas. Warner, a veteran and former Navy secretary, said it was important to show the Iraqi government "that we mean business" and that the U.S. military commitment is not open-ended.
"We simply cannot as a nation stand and put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action which will get everybody's attention," Warner said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Gordon Johndroe, a deputy White House press secretary, said Bush would stick to the process established by Congress. That timetable calls for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, to give their progress report in mid-September. Bush will then make his own report.
It "is the appropriate course of action to see where things stand, by hearing from our U.S. representatives on the ground -- where things stand on the security front and where things stand on the political front," he said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is spending several days at his ranch.
Warner quoted Crocker as saying the political process in Iraq was "extremely disappointing" and warning that U.S. support for Maliki's government did not come with a blank check. "It seems to me, the time has come to put some meaningful teeth into those comments," he said.
Warner emphasized that he would leave it to the president, as commander in chief, in consultation with the military, to decide "if a deployment such as I recommend is feasible, and any subsequent redeployments after that."
Times staff writer James Gerstanzang in Crawford contributed to this report.