WASHINGTON — Newly returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq and under growing pressure from antiwar Democrats as she weighs entering the 2008 presidential race, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton called Wednesday for a cap on the number of U.S. troops stationed in the war zone.
The New York senator's proposal to freeze troop levels faces dubious prospects in a divided Congress and was quickly spurned by the White House. But the political urge to weigh in against President Bush's "surge" of military personnel to Iraq appeared irresistible.
Even as Clinton unveiled her plan, two of her possible rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination -- Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut -- announced their own troop cap proposals.
Accusing the Bush administration of a "failed strategy" in Iraq, Clinton said she wanted to freeze the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq as of Jan. 1, before Bush announced a planned increase of 21,500 troops to help patrol strife-racked Baghdad and Al Anbar province.
"The president is sending mixed signals. We need to change course," Clinton said.
The New York senator also said she would introduce legislation that would limit funds for Iraqi security forces if they failed to take an effective role in quelling internecine violence between Shiite and Sunni factions.
At the same time, Clinton called for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to ward against a feared Taliban offensive and voiced concern that some "surge" forces in Iraq would be siphoned off from Afghan units.
Clinton did not elaborate on how Congress could impose a troop cap, an action that probably would be complicated by the rapid moves already made by the administration to set its troop increase in motion.
And the senator acknowledged the dim prospects of nudging a troop cap through Congress despite the slim Democratic majority.
"We're all going to try to do whatever we can" to pressure the administration, she said. "But I can count," Clinton added, referring to the deepening divisions over the war between the parties.
As she explained her nuanced new stance, Clinton appeared to carefully navigate between the urge to hone her antiwar credentials while defending against attacks that she was not supporting U.S. troops.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said her proposed troop cap would "bind the hands of the commander in chief and also the generals, and frankly, also the troops on the ground."
Clinton's vote in 2002 to authorize the Bush administration's war in Iraq has long been a sore point among war critics and could be an Achilles heel in the 2008 presidential race.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has already announced his intention to run in 2008 and publicly recanted his 2002 vote for the Iraq war authorization, appeared at a church in Harlem over the weekend and warned Democratic legislators: "It is no longer OK to study your options and keep your own private counsel. Silence is betrayal. Speak out, and stop this escalation now."
Clinton's aides, interpreting Edwards' remarks as an attack on her, responded quickly.
"In 2004, John Edwards used to constantly brag about running a positive campaign," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. "He has unfortunately chosen to open his campaign with political attacks on Democrats who are fighting the Bush administration's Iraq policy."
Edwards later denied he was talking about Clinton.
Also Wednesday, Dodd introduced a measure that would simply cap the number of troops at roughly 130,000. Dodd announced last week that he would run for the presidency in 2008.
Obama, who said Tuesday that he had formed an exploratory committee for a presidential run, said Wednesday in a statement that he would also introduce a bill to press for a troop cap and a "phased redeployment I called for two months ago."