WASHINGTON - The Republican revolt against President Bush’s war strategy accelerated Friday as two of the party’s most respected voices on national security proposed legislation envisioning a major realignment of U.S. troops in Iraq starting as early as Jan. 1.
Defying Bush even as his team fanned out to press Congress for more time, Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., unveiled a measure requiring the White House to begin drawing up plans to redeploy U.S. forces from frontline combat to border security and counter-terrorism. But the bill would not force Bush to implement the plans at this point.
The proposal fell short of Democratic demands to set a firm timetable for withdrawal but underscored the continuing erosion of the president’s position among Republicans on Capitol Hill, and it could shape the debate as Congress wrestles with its position on the war. Votes in both houses this week demonstrated that war opponents do not have enough support to overcome a Bush veto, and it remains unclear whether the two sides can reach a bipartisan consensus.
The action on Capitol Hill came as the Bush administration launched a diplomatic offensive intended to rally Sunni Muslim governments in the Middle East to come to Iraq’s aid if only to maintain a buffer zone against Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to the region together next month to push Egypt and Saudi Arabia to do more to help the foundering Iraqi government.
At the same time, the U.S. military tried Friday to show that it is making progress toward troop redeployment without congressional mandate, disclosing its intent to significantly reduce forces in the largely peaceful northern Iraq beginning as early as January. The general who commands U.S. forces in the area told reporters that he has presented his superiors a plan to cut troops there in half over 12 to 18 months.
But Bush aides acknowledged they failed to pressure the Iraqi parliament to remain in session in August to advance long-stalled legislation deemed crucial to political reconciliation. “My understanding is at this juncture they’re going to take August off, but you know, they may change their minds,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow. He added sympathetically: “You know, it’s 130 degrees in Baghdad in August.”
A White House report to Congress released Thursday concluded that the Baghdad government has not made satisfactory progress toward political changes intended to ease sectarian tensions fueling the war. If the Iraqis do not meet the congressionally mandated goals by Sept. 15, the law signed by Bush threatens to cut off aid, and the failure would be likely to bolster war opponents on Capitol Hill.
“Senator Warner and I have tried to approach the current situation by asking, ‘What should happen now, even if the president has not changed course?’ ” Lugar said in remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor.
Lugar and Warner carry particular weight as two of the party’s leading authorities on national security. Until Democrats took over in January, Lugar was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Warner was chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Yet Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has shown no interest in working with rebellious Republicans if they do not support a firm withdrawal date. “We are not going to stop,” Reid told reporters after Bush’s news conference Thursday. “We are going to continue facing down this bad policy. It is not good for America. It’s not good for the world.”
Warner and Lugar would amend the Senate’s defense authorization bill to require the White House to present a realignment plan to Congress by Oct. 16, forcing the White House to begin work well before the September progress report from Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
U.S., Shiites battle: U.S. soldiers killed six Iraqi policemen and seven gunmen Friday during a street battle that began when the troops captured a police lieutenant accused of directing a Shiite militia group, the military said. The captured lieutenant was a “high-ranking” leader of a cell suspected of helping coordinate Iranian support for Shiite extremists, the military said. Journalist killed: In Sadiyah, gunmen shot to death an Iraqi journalist Khalid Hassan of The New York Times as he was driving to work, the third employee of a Western news outlet to be killed in two days.