WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain defended President Bush's Iraq plan on Friday as a difficult but necessary move, parting company with lawmakers fiercely resisting the military build up.
"I believe that together these moves will give the Iraqis and Americans the best chance of success," said McCain, R-Ariz., a leading presidential contender for 2008.
McCain also took a shot at Democrats who say the United States must bring some troops home within four to six months.
"I believe these individuals ... have a responsibility to tell us what they believe are the consequences of withdrawal in Iraq," he said. "If we walk away from Iraq, we'll be back, possibly in the context of a wider war in the world's most volatile region."
McCain spoke at the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent a second day on Capitol Hill defending the president's strategy.
As they did, Democrats continued considering strategies for challenging Bush's war policies. One influential lawmaker, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said he'd like to require closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and better training for troops heading to the war zone as conditions of Congress providing more money for Iraq.
"We have to close the prison at Guantanamo," said Murtha, who heads the House panel that controls the Pentagon's budget. He said Democrats would decide later whether to pursue the idea.
Gates and Pace on Friday assured lawmakers there were no immediate plans to attack targets in Iran. In his speech this week on Iraq, Bush vowed to disrupt Iran's aid to insurgents in Iraq and "destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Bush's comments refer "strictly to operations inside the territory of Iraq, not crossing the border," Gates said, later adding that "any kind of military action inside Iran itself, that would be a very last resort."
Despite pointed questions from Levin and other Democrats, the testimony of the two top officials drew considerably less consternation than Thursday's testimony from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Rice that he feared Bush's plan would be the worst foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War.
On the Senate Armed Services Committee are several staunch Bush supporters, including John Cornyn of Texas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. In addition to McCain, committee members Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., support sending more troops to Iraq.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the panel's new chairman, said that deepening America's commitment in Iraq would be a grave mistake. Bush wants to add 21,500 more U.S. troops to the 132,000 already there.
"Increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq is flawed strategy because it is based on a flawed premise that there is a military solution to the violence and instability in Iraq, when what is needed is a political solution among the Iraqi leaders and factions," Levin said.
Repeating an admission that Bush made in his nationally televised address on Wednesday, Gates told the senators, "Mistakes certainly have been made by the United States in Iraq. However we got to this moment, the stakes now are incalculable."
Bush on Friday sought support for his new Iraq military build up in telephone calls to Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Late Thursday, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, warned against sending more troops for long. The group had called for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by early 2008, but said that a temporary troop increase might be justified under some circumstances.
"We are encouraged by the president's statement that 'America's commitment is not open-ended' and Secretary Gate's statement that the addition of 21,000 troops would be viewed as a temporary surge," Baker and Hamilton said in a statement. "The violence in Baghdad will not end without national reconciliation."
Republican Sens. John Warner and Susan Collins said Friday they were gravely concerned about the fate of Iraq. Collins, R-Maine, asked Gates and Pace why the administration thinks the plan will work when past attempts have failed.
Warner said the goal must be to keep Iraq from imploding and being "scattered to the winds" in the region.
"I don't call it victory. I don't call it a win," said Warner, R-Va. "But to enable this government and its people to continue to seek their own level of democracy and freedom."
Gates said he believes additional troops in Iraq might work because of promises made by Iraqis to reach a political settlement and work toward rebuilding the country.
"If they fail to do those things, then I think it's incumbent upon the administration and incumbent upon me to recommend looking at whether this is the right strategy," Gates said.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate intend to hold votes within a few weeks on Bush's revised Iraq policy. The nonbinding resolutions would be one way to show their opposition to any troop buildup and force Republicans to make a choice.