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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: TAKING SIDES IN THE DEBATE

A potential minefield for both parties

Democrats may lose steam in pushing for a big pullout; the GOP could face public anger over troops who stayed.

September 11, 2007|Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With his proposal to end the troop "surge" by next summer, the top U.S. commander in Iraq may have upended the debate in the Capitol, causing both parties to recalibrate their positions.

Democrats, who have been struggling all year to force President Bush to begin pulling troops out of Iraq, now face the prospect that he will agree with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and do just that. The proposed drawdown would not be as fast or large as Democrats have wanted; it could undermine support for their push to order a major withdrawal.

Republicans, meanwhile, will have to decide whether to continue to stand by the White House for at least another year as tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops remain in the center of a volatile civil war in the run-up to next year's elections.

Bush, who has said he will rely heavily on Petraeus' advice, is expected to make a major policy announcement on Iraq later this week.

Democratic and Republican leaders each tried Monday afternoon to use the testimony from Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to bolster positions their party had held for much of the year.

Senior Democrats pronounced the troop buildup a failure, highlighting a lack of progress by Iraqi leaders in taking concrete steps to bring together warring ethnic and religious communities.

"The situation in Iraq cries out for a dramatic change of course," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame). "It is time to go and to go now." Democratic leaders said an end to the 30,000-troop surge was far too drawn-out.

GOP leaders derided Democratic withdrawal demands, instead emphasizing increasing stability in Anbar province, where U.S. commanders have highlighted recent efforts by Sunni tribal leaders to help drive out Islamist terrorists.

"Pushing for a precipitous withdrawal now, just as security gains are being realized and as the first critical steps toward political reconciliation are being taken, would thrust the Middle East into chaos and place our national security at substantial risk for generations to come," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

But the spin masked the deeper challenges that the general's withdrawal proposal might present both parties.

Congressional Democrats are striving to restart their legislative campaign to end the war after months of conflict with the White House and its GOP allies.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have held repeated votes on withdrawal but have been able to convince only a handful of Republicans to join their efforts to force a pullout. Senior Democrats have yet to say what they will do next.

At the same time, evidence of progress in Anbar province has helped to steady Republican unease and relieve some of the pressure many had felt to break with the White House and join Democrats.

"There is a sense that things are going right that there wasn't a few months ago," said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), one of several House Republicans privately agonizing earlier this year about Bush's strategy. "I think a lot of us are now beginning to have a level of comfort with the plan."

If the president accepts the Petraeus plan to end the buildup and gives GOP lawmakers a withdrawal plan they can sell to their constituents, it may be harder still for Democrats to convince Republicans to cross the aisle and back their antiwar legislation.

In the last week, a number of senior Democrats have talked about less stringent proposals that would not set a withdrawal deadline.

"We have completely lost the momentum," said an aide to one leading antiwar Democrat. The aide asked not to be identified discussing internal party tensions. "We have let them entirely frame the debate."

Republicans were further energized Monday by a full-page ad in the New York Times by the liberal grass-roots group Move On.org attacking the credibility of Petraeus, who is generally highly regarded. GOP leaders gleefully sought to link the ad to Democrats. The ad accused him of "cooking the books" on statistics that show a decline in violence and mocked him as "General Betray Us." Move On.org has worked closely with Democratic leaders pushing for a withdrawal.

A pullout plan that still keeps more than 130,000 troops in Iraq next summer will present congressional Republicans with problems of their own, however.

Despite evidence of some progress and the popularity of military officers like Petraeus, the war remains deeply unpopular with the American public.

War opponents outnumber supporters 2 to 1, as they have for months. About a third of Americans believe the buildup is working, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

"My hope is that this is a message that is going to penetrate my Republican colleagues," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and a leader of Congress' Out of Iraq Caucus. "We are in election season now. And I hope Republicans realize the war is an albatross around their necks."

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