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Romney backs Bush's 'surge' in Iraq

WASHINGTON -- Former governor Mitt Romney Wednesday endorsed President Bush’s plan for a troop increase in Iraq, breaking his public silence on the troop ``surge’’ by arguing that a stable Iraq is only possible if US forces can provide security to Iraqi civilians.

Hours before Bush spoke Wednesday night, Romney issued a statement calling for five additional combat brigades in Baghdad and two Marine regiments in Al-Anbar province -- precisely the plan for as many as 21,500 new troops that was outlined by the Bush administration before the president’s speech.

``It is impossible to defeat the insurgency without first providing security for the Iraqi people,’’ Romney said in a statement released Wednesday morning. ``In consultation with generals, military experts and troops who have served on the ground in Iraq, I believe securing Iraqi civilians requires additional troops.’’

Romney’s comments mark his most extensive statement on Iraq in months, and his first exploration of the issue since forming his presidential exploratory committee last week.

His position aligns him not only with Bush but also with Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of Romney’s leading rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. McCain has called for sending more troops to Iraq for more than three years, and has pronounced himself supportive of the president’s decision for a ``surge’’ in the troop level.

For both Romney and McCain, casting their lot with the president on Iraq is a gamble that carries political peril. Unlike the other potential GOP candidates -- who have remained mum on how they’d handle Iraq -- they are now on record in supporting a controversial move that critics argue will likely worsen the situation in Iraq.

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, said Romney’s decision to back Bush suggests an emerging candidate who is still tentative on issues of foreign affairs. Berry said that instead of Romney stating his own unique take on the war, he’s endorsed what he views as a politically safer position: supporting the president.

``I don’t think he has the confidence to stake out his own position, so he’s gravitating toward what he sees as the most conservative position,’’ he said. ``He’s concerned about how he’s going to be portrayed in the primaries. Rather than develop his own position and open it up to criticism, it’s easier for him to say, ‘I’m just being loyal to the president.’ ’’

Another possible Republican presidential candidate, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Wednesday came out against a troop increase, echoing the stance taken by Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

``I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer,’’ Brownback said. ``Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution.’’

In the past, Romney has been critical of elements of the administration's execution of the war, but has stopped short of directly criticizing the president. He has joined Bush in rejecting calls for an early withdrawal, and joined the president in questioning key elements of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recent report.

In an interview last month with the conservative magazine Human Events, Romney declined to discuss specifics about tactics or troops levels, saying he was still a governor and would wait to hear the president's plan.

Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said Romney waited until Wednesday to offer his views on how to handle Iraq to give the president a chance to develop his strategy without political interference. Madden said the former governor’s staff told the White House that he would be issuing the statement, but he declined to comment on any conversations between Romney and Bush administration officials.

Madden said Romney has consulted with a range of military leaders in recent months, including, retired general Barry McCaffrey, Anthony Zinni, and Joseph Ralston; former ambassador Dennis Ross; and military historian Victor Davis Hanson.

Romney’s statement Wednesday brought immediate condemnation from Democrats, who accused him of toeing the party line.

``Apparently Romney will endorse any of President Bush's failed policies if it helps him run to the right, even if it means ignoring our military leaders and sending more American troops into the middle of a civil war in Iraq,’’ said Stacie Paxton, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

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