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Iraq plans divide Democratic hopefuls

The candidates shift attention from attacking Bush's strategy to defining their own, and criticizing their rivals'.

February 03, 2007|Tom Hamburger and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The 2008 Democratic presidential candidates, who have been nearly unified in support of universal healthcare, abortion rights and alternative energy, have begun an increasingly harsh debate over an issue that will probably define the early part of the campaign: when to remove troops from Iraq.

Until recently, most Democratic presidential candidates, like the party generally, found success by bashing President Bush's Iraq strategy without offering comprehensive alternatives.

But this week, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in a departure from his own past statements, introduced legislation that would begin a phased redeployment of troops by April and require that all combat troops leave Iraq by March 2008.

Obama's announcement set him at odds with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has declined to specify a date for the removal of all troops from Iraq. Last week, Clinton proposed placing a cap on the number of U.S. troops and threatening Iraq's government with a withdrawal of support.

Clinton's approach, in turn, drew a caustic attack this week from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) -- a noteworthy development in a campaign that had been marked by collegiality. Biden said Clinton's proposed strategy for Iraq would "produce nothing but disaster."

Also coming in for Biden's scorn was former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who six months ago offered a plan for withdrawal and became the favorite of many antiwar activists. Edwards called for an immediate reduction of 40,000 troops, with all forces to leave the country -- though not the region -- within 18 months.

"John Edwards wants you and all the Democrats to think, 'I want us out of there,' but when you come back and you say, 'OK, John, what about the chaos that will ensue? Do we have any interest, John, left in the region?,' well, John will have to answer yes or no," Biden said in an interview with the New York Observer. He added: "So all this stuff is like so much Fluffernutter out there."

The jockeying and jostling over Iraq in the primary campaign were displayed anew Friday as six candidates addressed an energized crowd at the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting in Washington. The candidates drew loud applause when they condemned the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

But Clinton was interrupted by seven antiwar protesters as she spoke. She has neither repudiated her vote in favor of the war in 2002 nor backed proposals to cut off funding for the war.

Speaking over the hecklers, Clinton said: "If I had been president in October of 2002, I would not have started this war." Then she added, "If we in Congress do not end this war before January of 2009, as president I will."

But Clinton has been reluctant to specify how she would do that. She and most other Democrats have appeared more comfortable talking about their immediate opposition to Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq by 21,500.

The raucous forum Friday showed the candidates sharpening their differences over how to respond to the planned troop escalation, adding a new element to their differences over longer-term plans for Iraq and when forces should withdraw.

Clinton defended her decision to support a nonbinding bipartisan resolution opposing the troop escalation, which is expected to be debated in the Senate next week. She told the Democratic meeting that the resolution, if approved, would mark the first time Congress had taken a stand against the president over the war.

Others in the Democratic primary field said the Senate should pass something tougher.

"I am disappointed we can't find a way to do more than send a meaningless message to the White House," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "I don't believe spending a week debating a nonbinding resolution is the change that America voted for." Dodd has not advocated a specific withdrawal date but has called for drawing down forces in Iraq and cutting off funding for expansion of the war.

Edwards also criticized the nonbinding resolution as insufficient. Obama has not yet decided whether to support it.

Obama had previously opposed setting a date for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. But as conditions deteriorated, he decided, with the advice of President Bill Clinton's former national security aide Anthony Lake, to propose his legislation this week setting a timetable for the complete withdrawal of combat troops under certain circumstances. On Friday, Obama pointedly called on all candidates to offer specifics about how they would end the war.

"It was enough to run against George Bush during this past congressional election; it will not be enough now," he said. "The American people are expecting more. They want to know what we are going to do."

Biden, who is to address the winter meeting today, has offered a multipart plan that calls for Iraq to become federated states. The states would share oil revenue, but the country effectively would be divided into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish enclaves.

Once the plan was implemented, Biden says, he would hope to get most U.S. troops out of the country in 18 months.

He, like many candidates, also calls for trying to settle the sectarian differences in Iraq by engaging Iraq's neighbors, as well as major world powers.

Like Clinton, Dodd and Edwards, Biden voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war but has long criticized the administration's conduct of the conflict.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska have long opposed the war. Both advocate an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Two Democratic governors seeking the presidency, Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, also oppose the war.

Richardson, who supported the war's goals initially, has called for a phased withdrawal.

Vilsack says troops should be removed from much of the country, but he advocates leaving some forces along the Iranian border.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

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