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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: POLITICANS STAKE OUT POSITIONS

Throwing their stance in the ring

January 11, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's speech outlining his troop increase in Iraq provoked several potential presidential candidates to stake out a position, including some Republicans who had avoided addressing the controversial proposal that could be a touchstone issue in the 2008 campaign.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, ended weeks of dodging questions on the issue by announcing Wednesday that he would support a troop increase. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said he opposed it, a sign that Republicans may not be as reluctant to distance themselves from Bush as they once were.

Divisions also opened among Democrats. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina announced their support for Congress to cut off money needed for a troop increase. That goes further than most Democrats want because they worry that such a move would be seen as undermining U.S. troops already in Iraq.

Presidential politics will probably cast a shadow over the opening debate on Bush's proposal when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testifies today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Five members of the panel are thinking about running for president.

For months, the only probable presidential candidate to support a troop increase was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who made it a signature issue long before Bush threw his support to the idea. Other Republican aspirants kept their distance from the proposal, which is supported by 12% of the public, a recent Gallup Poll said.

Romney had previously declined to comment on the troop buildup. "I'm still a governor," he would tell interviewers. His term as Massachusetts governor ended last week.

On Wednesday, Romney put himself in league with McCain, his leading rival for the GOP nomination, and Bush by issuing a statement calling for more troops. He said he reached his decision after consultations with generals, military experts and ground forces.

McCain, after Bush's speech, acknowledged the political perils of backing such an unpopular plan. "I'd much rather lose a campaign than lose a war," he said on CNN.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had been silent on the issue, issued a statement supporting Bush's troop increase.

"Even more importantly," Giuliani said, "I support the change in strategy, the focus on security and the emphasis on a political and economic solution as being even more important than a military solution."

Brownback, issuing a statement while on a trip to Iraq that included a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, said: "I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer. Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution."

Almost all Democrats considering a presidential bid opposed the Bush plan, although there were differences in their degree of opposition and positions on what Congress should do to stop the president.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), a longshot candidate, is the most militant opponent of the war and has proposed a swift withdrawal. He also wants to deny any new funding to continue the military effort in Iraq.

Presumed front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has been more moderate about the war and cautious about commenting on the president's plan.

But after Bush's speech, she said, "I cannot support his proposed escalation of the war in Iraq." She reiterated her backing for a "phased redeployment of U.S. troops."

Others were more assertive in advance of Bush's speech.

Kerry said he was backing a proposal by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to prohibit paying for an increase in U.S. troops unless Congress voted to approve it.

Edwards, an outspoken critic of the escalation who has said he made a mistake when he voted for the war in 2002, also called on Congress to block funding for the buildup.

Some Democratic candidates are not so keen on pulling the purse strings.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) has not ruled out such action but raised questions about its constitutionality and practicality.

He is calling instead for Congress to pass a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's troop increase, an approach that Senate Democratic leaders have embraced.

"Sending more American troops to the epicenter of a vicious civil war is not the answer," he said.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) opposed the Iraq war in 2002, although he was not in Congress at the time to vote against it. He has criticized the troop increase.

"We cannot impose a military solution on the problem; there has to be a political accommodation," Obama said on CNN, noting that the president had offered no plan to reconcile Shiites and Sunnis. "I think we are making a very bad mistake."

Obama has not embraced the Kennedy legislation. He said his staff was looking at ways to place conditions on Bush's actions without risking cuts that could hurt troops in Iraq.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a potential Democratic contender, said, "The only surge we need in Iraq is a diplomatic one."

He also called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq this year -- a more specific timetable than many Democrats have supported.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

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