WASHINGTON – Democrats unimpressed by President Bush's new strategy for Iraq say rather than "escalating" the war by sending more than 20,000 troops to the country, Iraqis should take over their own security and prepare for the transition of U.S. forces from combat to training and logistics.
House and Senate Democratic leaders issued a response late Wednesday to Bush's address to the nation, insisting that "Iraqi political leaders will not take the necessary steps to achieve a political resolution to the sectarian problems in their country until they understand that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended."
Saying they oppose any escalation of U.S. military involvement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin called for the beginning of "phased redeployment" of U.S. forces in the next four to six months and implementation of an aggressive diplomatic strategy that "reflects the continuing obligation of the international community to help stabilize Iraq and which assists the Iraqis in achieving a sustainable political settlement, including by amending their constitution."
Democrats are banking on popular support to back their revolt against the president, who announced Wednesday night that he wants to increase the number of U.S. forces in Baghdad and al Anbar province, the two areas where most of the sectarian violence occurs, and help the Iraqi government reach political and economic benchmarks to regain control of the country.
Democrats rode into congressional majorities in the House and Senate during November's midterm election largely on the pledge to get out of Iraq. But by rejecting the president outright, they must walk a fine line so as not to appear as obstructionists or unsupportive of the troops.
Meanwhile, Democrats are looking for legislative remedies to prevent the president from following through on his plan to send five Army brigades to Baghdad and 4,000 Marines to al Anbar.
For Bush, the decision to send more troops to Iraq — rather than begin a withdrawal of combat forces as recommended last month by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group — is a huge gamble. If the new strategy fails, he will have few if any options left.
Bush on Wednesday acknowledged it was a mistake not to have had more forces in Iraq previously, something that had been pushed Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain from the get-go and was even supported by Pelosi and other Democrats early in the fighting.
During his presentation, the president also recognized the risks ahead.
"Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties," Bush said. But, he added, "to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale."
Democrats served notice they would challenge his plan, with aggressive hearings that begin on Thursday and with votes in both the House and Senate in the coming days on a nonbinding measure opposing any increase in troops.
"American voters expect us to help get us out of Iraq," said Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a 2008 presidential hopeful.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who met with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley before the president's speech, said that while he agreed with several proposals by the president, including job training and benchmarks for Iraqi progress, he is concerned that the president's plan relies on too many assumptions.
"It assumes an increase of 21,000 troops is sustainable. And if the increase is sustainable, it assumes that 21,000 troops are sufficient to achieve the objective of securing Baghdad," Nelson said. "It assumes the National Guard and Reserve components will not be further stretched by this deployment. It assumes Iraqi troops will be trained, equipped, and capable and will show up and engage the enemy. It assumes Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki can deal with Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia. It assumes the Shiia-dominated government can achieve national reconciliation and put an end to the civil war. The failure of any one of these assumptions could undermine the entire plan."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said while he agrees with Bush about the strategic importance of the Middle East, "the proposed increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq is three and a half years late and several hundred thousand troops short.
"Our experience has shown that a limited infusion of troops will not necessarily produce the improvement to Iraqi security that we hoped. I remain to be convinced that increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will have a measurable affect on the security situation in Iraq," he said, adding that a gradual withdrawal will relieve the strain on an overburdened U.S. military.
Congress voted in October 2002 by wide margins to authorize Bush to take military action in Iraq, but in looking for a way out must rely on legislative maneuvering to end run the president's authority as commander in chief.
While Congress controls the government's purse strings, politically about the most it can do is hold hearings and pass symbolic resolutions. Even with the help of some Republicans, if Congress is able to pass legislation — such as that proposed this week by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to require Bush to get congressional approval before sending more troops to Iraq — Bush will surely veto it.
Given the slim margin of Democratic control, such a veto would almost certainly be sustained.
But even some Republicans suggested after the president's speech that the United States should start looking for a way out of Iraq as soon as possible.
"I am opposed to the escalation of American involvement in Iraq, including more U.S. troops. This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
"I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, also a 2008 presidential contender. "Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution. In the last two days, I have met with Prime Minister Maliki, with two deputy presidents and the president of the Kurdish region. I came away from these meetings convinced that the United States should not increase its involvement until Sunnis and Shia are more willing to cooperate with each other instead of shooting at each other."
But many Republicans, even those who hesitant about an ongoing war, continued to back the president.
"While I'm not ready to lend full support to the President's plan, I am convinced we all need to learn more. I look forward to additional information and hearings in the weeks to come," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "For those who don't like the president's plan, the election is over and now is the time to stop the rhetoric and explain your policy."
"A troop increase is a bitter pill to swallow. But allowing Iraq to become a haven for terrorists is a real threat to our nation's safety and security. Our goal is to succeed in Iraq. If this action will improve our chance to succeed — and at this point I think it will — then I will support the effort," said Rep. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.