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Democrats urge faster troop withdrawal

Senators seek compromise bill with GOP

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (from left), with Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said yesterday that General David Petraeus's call for limited withdrawal of US troops from Iraq was 'more of the same.' (CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES)
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (from left), with Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said yesterday that General David Petraeus's call for limited withdrawal of US troops from Iraq was "more of the same." (CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES)

WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic leaders yesterday appealed to moderate Republican senators to join them in supporting a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq more quickly than requested by Army General David H. Petraeus, and to shift the US mission in Iraq to a more limited one of fighting terrorism and training Iraqis.

President Bush is scheduled to address the nation tonight and officially endorse Petraeus's recommendation to reduce by next summer the number of US troops in Iraq to the number in place before last winter's "surge," but to maintain a large force in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

At a press conference yesterday, three of the Senate's leading Democrats - Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who has been a party point man on Iraq - said that they would oppose the president and seek a faster withdrawal, and that they would seek to work with Republicans on a compromise bill.

Without significant new Republican support in the Senate, Democrats have no hope of overcoming the Senate's filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to end debate.

"I call on the Senate Republicans to not walk lockstep as they have with the president for years in this war," Reid said. "It's time to change. It's a president's war. At this stage it appears, clearly, it's also the Republican senators' war, and I hope that they will drop that legacy next week."

Petraeus's testimony this week appeared to bolster Bush's war strategy, solidifying the support of some Republican lawmakers. Yet the general's forecast of a long, unpredictable conflict worried a number of key Republican moderates, who were unconvinced that Bush's troop increase has produced meaningful improvements.

Levin said he would offer one concession to Republicans, agreeing to change from a deadline to a goal the April 2008 target date in his bill calling for a shift to a more limited mission.

The bill would require the United States to strictly limit its military mission in Iraq to fighting Al Qaeda, training the Iraqi Army, and protecting American diplomats, and at the same time demand a significant reduction in forces beyond what Bush is planning, he said.

Few Republicans were willing to support Democratic measures putting the breaks on the war earlier this year, but several have supported compromise legislation. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, joined with Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, to introduce a plan to change the mission of US troops in Iraq.

GOP senators Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are among the Republicans in talks with Democrats about war legislation. Hagel was cagey about his intentions in a brief interview Tuesday.

"Well, we'll have to see where the leadership wants to go with different proposals," he said. "I want to see what the options are. I've been very clear that we need a change of direction."

As Bush prepared his speech yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke for the administration in warning that there can be no quick withdrawal.

"We're at the beginning of a long process of dealing with what the president called a long time ago a generational challenge to our security brought on by extremism coming principally out of the Middle East," she said.

This month's Iraq debate in Congress is tricky for the two Democrats leading in most national polls for the party's presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who risk losing their appeal to antiwar voters if they support compromise legislation. Both spoke out against Bush's strategy yesterday.

Obama gave a speech in which he called on the United States to begin withdrawing forces immediately, at the pace of one to two brigades every month, finishing by the end of 2008.

"Let me be clear: There is no military solution in Iraq, and there never was," he said. "The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops."

Clinton sent a letter to Bush, urging him to accept a quicker pace of withdrawal from Iraq.

"What you are planning to tell the American people tomorrow night is that one year from now, there will be the same number of troops in Iraq as there were one year ago," she wrote. "Mr. President, that is simply too little too late."

Many of the other presidential contenders also weighed in on Iraq yesterday. Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, slammed both Obama and Clinton for not ruling out any measure without an enforceable deadline for withdrawal. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards asked whether Congress will "cave" to Bush's demands.

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, launched a "No Surrender" tour in Iowa. "We have suffered enormous losses, and Americans are frustrated and angry," he said. "But we do have a new strategy and a new general and it is succeeding and we ought to give it a chance to succeed."

Republican candidate Mitt Romney told the Associated Press that Obama had "disqualified himself for presidential leadership" with his call for an end to US involvement in Iraq. And Rudy Giuliani attacked Clinton for telling Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that their report required the suspension of disbelief. "Why would you say that about an American general?" Giuliani said.

Scott Helman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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