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Kennedy calls on US to begin troop pullout

WASHINGTON -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy yesterday called on the Bush administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq shortly after national elections there Sunday, saying the presence of US troops is fueling an increasingly violent insurgency and exacerbating the security situation, not improving it.

The Massachusetts Democrat said it has become clear that increasing troop levels in Iraq will not bring peace to the region because the troops are often targets of attacks, and he said the United Nations must fill the nation- building role that America is playing largely by itself. Thirteen months after Saddam Hussein was captured, the presence of 157,000 US troops in Iraq is contributing to a perception of a "military occupation" in the country -- a situation that helps recruit terrorists and is a recipe for endless cycles of violence, he said.

"The US military presence has become part of the problem, not part of the solution," Kennedy said in a speech at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Kennedy has been consistently critical of the administration's Iraq policies, but his speech yesterday marked the first time he has called for President Bush to begin withdrawing troops. In 2002, Kennedy angrily denounced and voted against the invasion, and he has since spoken in a series of high-profile forums to question the war's costs, postwar planning, and the administration's responsibility for prisoner abuse scandals.

Kennedy noted that in 1965, America had a roughly similar number of troops in Vietnam -- about 130,000 -- as the nation has in Iraq and had suffered slightly fewer deaths as a result of combat actions than the 1,400 US troops who have died in the current conflict. Vietnam should have taught Washington that military might alone cannot win wars, he said.

"We thought that victory on the battlefield would lead to victory in the war, and peace and democracy for the people of Vietnam," Kennedy said. "We did not understand that our very presence was creating new enemies and defeating the very goals we set out to achieve. We cannot allow that history to repeat itself."

He said Bush should send a signal that he has a "genuine exit strategy" by clearly stating that the United States will not maintain permanent military bases in Iraq and by bringing home at least 12,000 troops immediately after the elections. He recommended handing responsibility for rebuilding Iraq to the UN, using diplomatic pressure to try to keep Iraq's neighbors from interfering in its internal development, and concentrating US efforts on training Iraqi security forces, with an eye toward a complete military withdrawal by early next year.

In an interview with The New York Times yesterday, Bush said he would withdraw US forces if the government elected Sunday asked him to do so. But he said he expected the new Iraqi leaders will want US troops to remain to help the country get back on its feet.

"It seems that most of the leadership there understands that there will be a need for coalition troops at least until the Iraqis are able to fight," Bush said.

Republicans dismissed Kennedy's calls for scaling back deployments. The Pentagon has not offered a timeline for withdrawal but has indicated the Army is planning to have at least 120,000 troops in Iraq through 2006.

Asked about troop levels at a news conference Wednesday, Bush declined to provide specifics but suggested a long road ahead for US forces in Iraq: "Obviously, we'll have the troop levels necessary to complete the mission, and that mission is to enable Iraq to defend herself from terrorists. Terrorists in that country have declared war against democracy itself, and thereby, declared war against the Iraqi people themselves. Yet the elections will go forward. Millions of Iraqi voters will show their bravery, their love of country, and their desire to live in freedom."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, said Wednesday that it is important for US forces to continue to offer Iraqis support at least through this year, as the country's new constitution is drafted and security forces are trained: "Public opinion may call for [faster withdrawal], but my own prediction is that we are going to stay the course of this year of constitution-building in Iraq. My judgment is that most people in the world community, whether they approved of the war in Iraq or supported it -- or halfheartedly -- do heartily approve of the need for this government to work, for the constitution to be fashioned, for the training to occur."

Kennedy made his remarks a day after 37 American troops were killed in Iraq, making it the single deadliest day for US forces since the invasion began nearly two years ago. He also spoke amid signs of growing frustration from Democrats in Congress over the progress in Iraq.

Twenty-four Democratic House members filed a bill this week calling for an immediate pullout from Iraq, and Representative Martin T. Meehan of Lowell -- a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee -- outlined a proposal for a phased withdrawal. The confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice drew extended criticism of the Bush's Iraq policies from Democratic senators, including from several political moderates who had not previously offered vocal opposition to the administration's handling of Iraq.

Kennedy praised the troops' performance in the combat theater, attributing what he called the current quagmire to the administration's "catastrophic failure" to adequately prepare for battle or convince Iraqis that the US presence in Iraq would not be permanent. "Error is no excuse for perpetuation," he said. 

EDWARD M. KENNEDY Says 'exit strategy' needed
Says "exit strategy" needed (AP)
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