WASHINGTON – Sen. John Warner is recommending that President Bush take a symbolic step next month and announce plans to withdraw a small number of troops from Iraq as a message to Iraqis that the U.S. will not be there forever.
Warner suggested Thursday the president could then follow up the move with a secondary redeployment of troops out of Iraq to make sure Iraqis and the country's border states know they must ensure their own regional stability.
"We must start an orderly, carefully-planned, thought-out redeployment," said Warner, who added that "in my humble judgment, that will get everybody's attention."
Even before the senator's press conference was done, the White House called it inappropriate to discuss whether or not Bush would consider such an option.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president appreciates Warner's remarks but "a clear process" is already laid out for withdrawal. That includes the president hearing from his commanders on the ground, and then submitting a report to Congress based on their recommendations.
Johndroe reiterated that the president also wants to wait to hear from Gen. David Petraeus, head of the Multinational Force in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before he makes any decisions. The two are testifying to Congress in the second week of September.
Johndroe denied that the White House is leaving the door open for a timetable.
Warner, who said he wanted to leave dates and numbers to military advisers to determine, envisioned a first redeployment of about only 5,000 of the more than 160,000 U.S. service men and women now in Iraq. The first-in, first-out rotation, which could conceivably be completed by Christmas, will jump start the Iraqi government to get political reforms enacted, he said. He noted that a Christmas deadline would also convey meaningful symbolism.
"The 5,000 is not going to be a destabilizing number of armed forces. It's not going to in any way denigrate" the ability of the troops to train the Iraqi Security Forces, Warner said. "But it will send a very clear signal to support what the president said on January 10 that we're not going to stay there forever" and what Ambassador Crocker said earlier this week that the United States is not giving Iraq "a blank check."
"Time has come to put some meaningful teeth into those comments, to back them up with some clear, decisive action to show that we mean business," he said.
Warner traveled to Iraq last week with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin. Levin held a press conference on Monday from Tel Aviv in which he called for the parliament to hold a vote of no-confidence on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Virginia Republican said he "did not want to go quite to the last step" that Levin did because he felt that some progress has been made in the political reconciliation of Iraq's government, and he held a "flicker of hope" that the legislature of Iraq could act upon — with "some degree of formality" — a series of action items prior to the Sept. 15 deadline for President Bush's report to Congress on progress in Iraq.
Warner added that his recommendation is not in any way an attempt "to pull the rug out from under the troops," and he has consistently voted against timetables for withdrawal. He would not indicate what would be the next step if the president did not heed his advice, but said he would oppose efforts to cut off funding for the troops.
"The Constitution is very explicit as to the president's authority, as to the Congress' authority. In reality, we have but one tool and that is to terminate funding. And having served in the Pentagon for five years during Vietnam, and having witnessed what Congress did, I do not want to see a repeat of that," he said.
Thursday's suggestion is not the first time Warner has made recommendations to Bush to change operations in Iraq. In January, he joined a group of GOP senators in offering an unsuccessful resolution disapproving of the president's plan to elevate the number of troops in Iraq. In July, Warner and Sen. Richard Lugar crafted a resolution calling on the president to develop detailed contingency plans for getting the U.S. out of Iraq.
Warner spoke after discussing Iraqi political reconciliation with White House advisers, in which he said he had been given assurances on top of what he saw on his own that the Iraqi leadership — composed of the president, prime minister, two vice presidents and parliamentary speaker — have made progress on a series of documents that address vital reconciliation matters such as de-Baathification and oil revenue-sharing laws, among others.
The press conference also followed the release of the National Intelligence Estimate, which concludes that Iraq's internal political struggles, ongoing sectarian violence and terror threats leave the country in a precarious situation for the next six to 12 months.
Warner said the NIE corroborates his view of events on the ground.
The unclassified version of the report also points out that Iraq's security has faced "measurable but uneven improvements" since January.
• Click here to read the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.
The report — the collective judgments of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organization of each military service — warned against any major changes in mission, for instance whether to redeploy and perform only counter-terror and combat support operations, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group in its 2005 report.
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.