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Veterans reinforce Democratic call to exit Iraq

Rep. Patrick Murphy and others are helping counter GOP criticism.

March 21, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Rep. Patrick Murphy stood up at the House Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday to urge support for a bill mandating a timeline to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, the boyish Pennsylvania lawmaker urged his colleagues to vote their conscience.

But as several lawmakers wiped away tears, he concluded with a more emotional appeal "for those 19 guys I served with who died."

Murphy, a former paratrooper who went to Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion, is in his third month on Capitol Hill. But as the only Iraq war veteran in Congress, the 33-year-old freshman has become a central player in the most intense lobbying effort since Democrats assumed the majority in January.

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her top lieutenants work to rally Democrats behind a bill to force President Bush to begin bringing troops home no later than next March, they are relying on lawmakers like Murphy who have served in the military.

Minnesota Rep. Timothy J. Walz, another freshman Democrat, whose Army National Guard battalion was deployed to Europe as part of the war in Afghanistan, on Tuesday joined a group of retired generals who came to Capitol Hill to urge passage of the bill.

And over the weekend, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy admiral who commanded an aircraft carrier battle group during the invasion of Afghanistan, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" to counter GOP accusations that Democrats were trying to micromanage the war.

"These guys have been invaluable," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.

Republican leaders, although respectful of Murphy and other veterans opposed to the war, dismiss their arguments.

"Iraq veterans legitimately have the right to be listened to, but not necessarily to have their ideas accepted carte blanche," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a former soldier who served in Vietnam and whose son fought with the Marines in Iraq's violent Al Anbar province.

Last week, Hunter and five other GOP lawmakers who served in Vietnam wrote to Pelosi opposing the withdrawal plan, saying their service made them "witness to the demoralizing effects of interference by those in Washington."

But charges that Democrats are meddling with and undermining the military -- long a staple of GOP attacks -- now confront the impassioned rebuttals of men like Murphy.

Before he came to Capitol Hill, Murphy made no secret of his plan to take on the administration over the war. In his campaign to unseat Michael G. Fitzpatrick last fall, Murphy linked the GOP congressman to the president's war strategy, pledging to make a change.

"Start bringing our troops home," Murphy intoned in one campaign ad, in which he stood in front of videos of car bombings and U.S. troops patrolling the streets of Iraq.

Murphy -- the tall, clean-cut son of a Philadelphia police officer and Navy veteran -- went to Iraq in 2003 as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

He had already served a tour in Bosnia. But Murphy, who often becomes emotional while discussing his service in Iraq, said he began having doubts about the Iraq mission soon after he arrived in Baghdad.

"I remember leading a convoy up 'ambush alley.' And the private

Three years later, Murphy has joined with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who fought in Vietnam, to sponsor legislation mandating that the withdrawal from Iraq begin in May.

And when Democrats last month brought up a nonbinding resolution opposing the president's plan to deploy additional troops to Iraq, Murphy helped lead the charge.

"I speak with a heavy heart for my fellow paratrooper Spc. Chad Keith, Spc. James Lambert and 17 other brave men who I served with who never made it home," Murphy said in a Feb. 13 speech in the House. "Walking in my own combat boots, I saw firsthand this administration's failed policy in Iraq."

That vote was easy for House Democrats, who overwhelmingly passed the resolution with the backing of 17 GOP lawmakers.

Today, the obstacles are greater as senior Democrats push binding legislation to force the president to start bringing troops home from Iraq.

Pelosi and others are laboring to win over liberal lawmakers who want a faster timeline for pulling out combat forces. That effort seemed to pick up momentum Tuesday as Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a leading member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, got behind the leadership plan.

It has fallen to others, including Murphy, to persuade centrist Democrats, many of whom have been troubled by charges that Democrats would be tying the hands of the military by setting a timeline for withdrawal.

Murphy said that in the last several weeks, he had had more than 100 meetings with members of Congress to make the case for the timeline. "I've been drinking a lot of coffee," Murphy joked.

But he wasn't joking when he recalled running into some Iraq veterans at a St. Patrick's Day parade in his suburban Philadelphia district last weekend.

"They said to me: 'Just bring them home, Patrick. Just bring them home.' "

*

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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