U.S. soldiers need to begin leaving Iraq this year and the fledgling Iraqi government must take on more responsibility, a Vermont state senator said in the Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address.

"We must ensure that 2006 is a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty," Peter Welch said in remarks taped Friday. "We must establish clear benchmarks for the Iraqis to take care of their own country and defend themselves, so that we can transition our troops out and move to fight a smarter war on terrorism."

Welch, the Vermont state senate president pro tem, is seeking the open seat held by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is running for the Senate. Welch faces a strong candidate in likely Republican nominee Martha Rainville, the former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard and the first woman to command a state National Guard.

Rainville faces two other candidates in the Sept. 12 primary but she has the backing of state and national Republicans.

Despite Rainville's military background, Welch has made the Iraq war a major part of his campaign as he seeks to tie Rainville to the president and congressional Republicans. The war has been unpopular in Vermont, whose congressional delegation was the only one in the country to unanimously oppose the resolution authorizing the war.

Welch criticized "the Republican rubber stamp Congress" for not doing a better job overseeing spending on the war and for not reducing health care costs for veterans.

"It is time for accountability, credibility and competence when it comes to Iraq," Welch said. "When I get to Washington, I pledge to work for all three as part of a new Congress that offers a new direction for our country."