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More in Congress want Iraq exit strategy

Unease grows as war backing falls

WASHINGTON -- Faced with plummeting public support for the war in Iraq, a growing number of members of Congress from both parties are reevaluating the reasons for the invasion and demanding the Bush administration produce a plan for withdrawing US troops.

A bipartisan group of House members is drafting a resolution that calls on the administration to present a strategy for getting the United States out of Iraq, reflecting an increasing restlessness about the war in a chamber that 2 1/2 years ago voted overwhelmingly to support the use of force in Iraq.

The House International Relations Committee on Thursday approved a similar proposal, 32 to 9, with strong bipartisan support. Sponsored by Representative Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat who voted to authorize force in Iraq in 2002, the proposal represents the first time a congressional committee has moved to demand steps be taken so that US troops can start coming home.

More than 100 Democrats -- including 11 who voted for the war resolution -- have signed onto a letter to President Bush requesting an explanation of the so-called Downing Street memo, a British document that charges the administration planned to go to war even without hard evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction.

The proposed resolutions would not have the force of law, if approved by the House and Senate. But the actions reflect discontent among lawmakers in both parties who are hearing constituent complaints about the war's escalating body counts and uncertain end.

Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, a conservative Republican who voted to authorize force, said his district is growing weary of a war that has cost the lives of more than 1,600 US troops and left more than 12,000 wounded.

''I'm hearing: 'How much do we have to do? We're giving blood. We're giving money. What is the final chapter for our involvement?' I think people are looking to the administration for an explanation, whether we have done all we can do," said Jones, whose district is home to 60,000 retired military personnel.

Jones said he felt misled by the administration on the reasons for the war because no weapons of mass destruction have been found. ''If I knew [then] what I knew today, I would not have voted for the resolution," Jones said.

Representative Marty Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who also voted for the war resolution, said he and some Democratic colleagues are working with five to 10 House Republicans on a resolution calling for an exit strategy to ease the United States out of Iraq. He said he hoped to get the support of 25 or more Republicans, despite the fact that only six voted against the war resolution.

''The war is going terribly," Meehan said. ''It's due to a lack of a plan to win the peace. Mistakes have been piling up."

The administration has consistently said that the military is making progress in Iraq, noting successes in rounding up insurgents. Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he rejects the idea of forcing the administration to lay out a clear exit strategy because it ''sends a message" that the United States is not committed to finishing the job in Iraq.

''There is an exit strategy, and it's the shoring up of the Iraqi guard and a military force capable of protecting Iraq and its people," he said. ''That cannot be fitted to a precise calendar."

But other lawmakers who voted for the Iraq war said their constituents are getting restless. A Washington Post/ ABC poll this week showed support for the war dropping dramatically, with nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed saying that the United States has gotten ''bogged down" in Iraq, compared with 41 percent in August 2003.

Representative Harold Ford, a centrist Democrat who also voted for the war, said his constituents in military-friendly Tennessee are clamoring to have their loved ones in Iraq brought home, and are growing increasingly skeptical about the future of the mission there.

While they supported the war initially, Tennessee voters have begun to express ''a lot of frustration" about the duration of the mission and the number of casualties, said Ford, who recently returned from a trip to Iraq. ''The president has to start sharing with the American people how long we are going to be there."

Some Democrats want a definite timeline for withdrawing, while others continue to berate the administration and their own colleagues for backing an invasion antiwar lawmakers believe was based on faulty or exaggerated intelligence.

Many Republicans are reluctant to criticize the president, while some Democrats who voted for the war are nervous about being lumped together with two of their party's most prominent antiwar figures -- House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.

''Many of the Democrats who voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force do not want to be perceived as weak on national security, and those who voted against the resolution somehow think it's someone else's problem," Meehan said.

Still, despite lingering differences over the decision to go to war, a consensus has been growing among lawmakers in both parties -- and on both sides of the war resolution -- that the United States is in danger of getting mired in a protracted, costly conflict, Crowley said.

''I think the amendment sends a clear message that both sides, for the first time, are saying the situation in Iraq is not OK," Crowley said of the International Relations Committee's resolution, which drew support from 13 Republicans and 19 Democrats. ''What I'm trying to do is create an umbrella we can all get under."

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