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Alaska senator among Republicans feeling antiwar heat

March 16, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, Sen. Lisa Murkowski walked into the most difficult meeting she's ever had. The constituents waiting for the Alaska Republican put down their crayons, set aside letters to their absent parents, and talked about their moms and dads at war.

The meeting with 18 children at Ft. Richardson, a U.S. Army base that houses the Alaska National Guard, was just one of Murkowski's recent visits with military families. Alaska's junior senator also met with wives who talked about the stress of not being able to tell their children when Dad will come home.

On Thursday, Murkowski voted to defeat a resolution that would have answered that question, bringing the troops home within a year.

For some Republicans like Murkowski, deciding how to vote on the war is increasingly challenging as it enters its fifth year next week.

"The answers are not easy for us," Murkowski said, adding that dealing with Iraq "has been literally gutwrenching." Speaking of her fellow lawmakers, she said, "we're all very overwhelmed with it, as we should be."

Many Democrats insist that U.S. troops should not patrol a civil war and should come home. The Republican leadership says redeploying would damage troop morale, encourage the enemy, undermine President Bush's move to quell violence in Baghdad and plunge the region into chaos. Murkowski, whose state hosts 12,000 troops and has more veterans per capita than any other, is among a small group of Republican lawmakers who are increasingly feeling the strain.

"Military families are not whiners, are not complainers, but they are tired and they are worried," she said in an interview. "I think about these kids who want their dads home, these women who want their husbands back home. But I have very serious misgivings about the danger we'll put our troops in if we impose an arbitrary deadline."

As the Senate grapples with the war, pressure has grown on a small bloc of Republicans who might break away from their party and join Democrats in challenging Bush's war strategy. They include lawmakers up for reelection next year, such as John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, and senators with a history of breaking from their party at times, such as Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Other Republicans face increasing antiwar sentiment at home and express less than enthusiastic support for the president's war strategy.

Murkowski has largely backed the president on votes in the last two years, but she has a steely independent streak. She earned conservative distrust as a state legislator because she backed a state income tax, and she favors allowing abortion in some circumstances. She defied her party on reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act, arguing that it did not do enough to protect civil liberties.

Murkowski entered the Senate soon after Congress voted on the Iraq war resolution and backed the war effort because she "felt very strongly that never again should we feel the tragedy that we faced on 9/11."

But by January, she was bluntly assessing Bush's plan for a troop increase to quell rising sectarian violence. "I'm not convinced," she told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, describing it as "a great leap of faith."

Her transformation stems in part from the strong relationship Alaskans have with their military residents, a supportive bond that members of the National Guard say is exceptional. But Alaska's casualties in the war -- at least 67 troops from or stationed in the state -- have also taken a toll.

Murkowski voted against the Democratic resolution because she is concerned about what a quick departure would mean. The measure called for a pullout to begin in 120 days, which she said "pretty much ties our hands."

"There are good and legitimate questions about U.S. involvement in a civil war," Murkowski said. But she pointed to Afghanistan, where a resurgence of violence "leads me to believe if we're not fully successful in stamping out activity, we'll deal with it later."

Murkowski's preferred plan for drawing down the U.S. presence in Iraq would set benchmarks, as opposed to a firm timetable. That idea underlines the president's plan to add troops in Baghdad, which ultimately aims to pass security responsibility to Iraqi forces.

Now that the "surge" is underway, Murkowski has noted reports that say violence in Baghdad is down and increasing elsewhere.

She acknowledges that the difficulty of relying on or measuring Iraqi progress could well mean an exit may not come soon.

During visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, she is in the habit of asking wounded soldiers what she can do for them. They often tell her they just want to get back to their unit.

"There's a commitment and resolve in these young men to finish the fight. But what we in Congress are saying is, 'Finish the fight -- what does that mean?' And that's the debate you see."

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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