WASHINGTON – An influential House Democrat who voted for the Iraq war called Thursday for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, another sign of growing unease in Congress about the conflict.
"It is time for a change in direction," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., one of Congress' most hawkish Democrats. "Our military is suffering, the future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region."
House Republicans assailed Murtha's position as one of abandonment and surrender, and accused Democrats of playing politics with the war. "They want us to retreat. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said.
Murtha estimated that all U.S. troops could be pulled out within six months. A Vietnam veteran, he choked back tears during his remarks to reporters.
Murtha's comments came just two days after the Senate voted to approve a statement that 2006 "should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" to create the conditions for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces.
In recent days, President Bush and other top administration officials have lashed out at critics of the war and have accused Democrats of advocating a "cut and run" strategy that will only embolden the insurgency.
Vice President Dick Cheney jumped into the fray Wednesday by assailing Democrats who contend the Bush administration manipulated intelligence on Iraq, calling their criticism "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."
Murtha, a Marine intelligence officer in Vietnam, angrily shot back at Cheney: "I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done."
Referring to Bush, Murtha added: "I resent the fact, on Veterans Day, he criticized Democrats for criticizing them."
The top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, Murtha has earned bipartisan respect for his work on military issues over three decades in Congress. He planned to introduce a resolution Thursday that, if passed by both the House and the Senate, would force the president to withdraw U.S. troops.
Murtha could not say whether his caucus supports his position. And, although he is a close adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., she was absent from his news conference.
Later Thursday, Pelosi said she supported his position that the president's policy is not working and must be changed but she stopped short of endorsing his call for immediate withdrawal. "Mr. Murtha speaks for himself very eloquently and the district he represents," Pelosi said.
For months, Pelosi has pushed for the Bush administration to outline an exit strategy. Some Senate Democrats have laid out plans for a phased withdrawal, and a number of House Democrats have been demanding that the troops be brought home. But few House members have the level of credibility on military issues that Murtha does.
Murtha voted to give the president authority to use force against Saddam Hussein in 2002 but in recent months has grown increasingly troubled with the direction of the war and with the Bush administration's handling of it.
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," Murtha said.
Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, said Murtha's call for withdrawal was "reprehensible and irresponsible."
"It shows the Democratic Party has chosen a policy of retreat and defeatism which will only encourage the terrorists and threaten the stability of Iraq," Granger said.
First elected to Congress in 1974, Murtha is known as an ally of uniformed officers in the Pentagon and on the battlefield. The perception on Capitol Hill is that when the congressman makes a statement on military issues, he's talking for those in uniform.
Known to shun publicity, Murtha said he was standing up because he had a constitutional and moral obligation to speak for the troops.
His voice cracked and tears filled his eyes as he related several stories of visiting wounded troops, including one who was blinded and lost both his hands but had been denied a Purple Heart because friendly fire caused his injuries.
"I met with the commandant. I said, 'If you don't give him a Purple Heart, I'll give him one of mine.' And they gave him a Purple Heart," said Murtha, who has two.