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THE NATION

Two Republican senators break with Bush on Iraq and call for troop withdrawal plan

`Surge' dissents by Voinovich and Lugar may herald additional GOP defections in coming weeks.

June 27, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a sign that Republican congressional support for the White House's Iraq strategy is starting to wane, two senators who have stood with President Bush are calling on him to plan for a U.S. troop withdrawal.

Ohio Sen. George V. Voinovich sent a letter to the president Tuesday stressing the need for a "comprehensive plan for our country's gradual military disengagement from Iraq."

And Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar -- the former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee whose views on international affairs are widely respected -- went to the floor of the Senate on Monday night and urged Bush "to downsize the U.S. military's role in Iraq."

"Our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond," Lugar said in an anguished address, expressing deep reservations about the president's policy as well as disappointment with the highly partisan debate in Washington over the war.

"The prospects that the current surge strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the president are very limited within the short period framed by our own domestic political debate," he said.

Voinovich, also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he now believed a nonmilitary strategy would do more to bring about stability in Iraq.

Neither senator indicated he would support Democratic legislation to force the president to withdraw most U.S. combat forces.

White House spokesman Tony Snow played down Lugar's comments Tuesday, saying: "He's somebody who has had reservations."

But the newly voiced views of the two Midwestern GOP senators may portend more trouble for the Bush administration's efforts to keep Republicans on Capitol Hill united behind the current war strategy through the summer.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a former Armed Services chairman who has been a critical voice in the war debate, told reporters Tuesday that he expected more GOP lawmakers to follow Lugar and Voinovich in coming weeks.

Even as administration officials plead for patience, public disaffection with the war continues to grow.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll showed that nearly two in five Americans now favor withdrawing U.S. troops.

Despite the troop buildup, insurgent violence remains high in Iraq. The Pentagon reported that May was the third deadliest month for U.S. troops since the invasion in 2003.

At the same time, senior U.S. officials have conceded that the Iraqi government is failing to take the political steps the troop buildup was meant to encourage.

Bush's top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, is due to deliver a progress report to Congress in September on the president's "surge," at which time many GOP lawmakers have said they will reassess their positions

It now appears some Republicans will not wait that long.

Although Lugar and Voinovich voiced skepticism about the deployment of additional troops when the president announced his plans in January, neither lawmaker has supported any of the efforts by Democrats or Republicans to formally challenge Bush.

With Voinovich and Lugar, at least six Republican senators have now publicly expressed support for some kind of withdrawal.

Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon voted this spring for a war spending bill that set a deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.

Maine's Sen. Olympia J. Snowe is pushing legislation calling for a withdrawal plan if the Iraqi government fails to make progress on benchmarks for reconciling the country's rival sectarian communities.

And in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Maine's other Republican senator, Susan Collins, said she believed "every option has to be on the table, including a significant but gradual withdrawal of our forces."

Senate Democratic leaders, who have promised a series of Iraq-related votes through the summer, plan to return to the war debate in two weeks when the chamber takes up the defense authorization bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he plans to debate several amendments that call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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