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Senators push anew to force troop pullout

Top Bush officials fight to stave off further defections

WASHINGTON -- Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine declared yesterday that "the tide has turned" against President Bush's Iraq war strategy among her fellow Republicans, as Bush fought to control growing disenchantment on Capitol Hill.

While the president told a friendly audience in Cleveland that Congress must give his security plan a chance to work, senators in both parties yesterday began a new push to force a troop withdrawal or to sharply limit the US mission in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and other high-ranking administration officials talked to lawmakers to try to stave off new defections.

Cheney visited GOP lawmakers at a private lunch yesterday, leading what Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called a "vigorous" discussion of the war, with some senators venting their frustrations. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley met with some Republican senators on Capitol Hill, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked the phones to persuade lawmakers to have patience with the administration's war policy before moving to change it.

"They're all struggling to find a way forward," said Senator Gordon Smith , Republican of Oregon , describing the administration's approach to Iraq. But lawmakers are losing patience, he said.

"I have many, many colleagues who are as concerned as I am," said Smith, one of the first Republicans to break with Bush on the war.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats unveiled a measure to begin moving troops out of Iraq within 120 days, an idea Smith supported. Both Democratic and GOP lawmakers have floated amendments that would narrowly redefine the American mission in Iraq as an antiterrorism campaign.

Some GOP lawmakers said they want to wait on such legislation until combat troops have had time to secure the country. But Snowe and others contend that Congress is already losing patience with an Iraqi government Snowe said is unwilling to take charge of its own security and political future.

"If there aren't 60 votes" to approve any of the proposed amendments to the defense authorization bill, she said, "I assure you, by September there will be."

With several more GOP senators distancing themselves from the president's Iraq strategy in the past week, speculation swirled in Washington that the president would signal his willingness to change direction. But Bush yesterday made it clear he would stick to his plan while awaiting a September report from General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and the president urged Congress and a doubtful public to do the same.

"It's hard on the American people, but I will once again explain the consequences of failure," the president told a Cleveland business group. "We just started. We got all the [surge] troops there a couple of weeks ago."

Members of Congress, however, are increasingly wary of giving Bush more time, anticipating a White House report later this week that is expected to show that the Iraqi government has failed to meet a number of important benchmarks for progress.

Frederick Kagan , one of the intellectual architects of the troop "surge" strategy, said Bush is right to stand by his Iraq security plan, and said there are signs that it is working. Despite growing Republican criticism of the strategy, Kagan predicted, there are currently not enough GOP defectors to override a presidential veto of legislation that would cut off funding and force an end to the war.

"The rush to kill the current strategy is not based on any reality in Iraq," Kagan said yesterday. "I think the strategy in Iraq will succeed and the attempt to turn it off here [in Washington] will not succeed."

Senators in both parties said they could not predict how any of the Iraq war amendments would fare. Many lawmakers say they are unhappy with the progress of the war -- and concerned about how the electorate will respond if US troops are still fighting in Iraq in the fall of 2008 -- but some also are reluctant to put a hard-and-fast deadline for troop withdrawal.

"If you tell them we're withdrawing on a certain date, there will be chaos and genocide in the region," said McCain , a war supporter who is also a contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. "It would be catastrophic."

Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said he is feeling pressure from constituents to find a way out of Iraq, a concern expressed by several senators also up for re election next year. But Stevens said he has not changed his mind about supporting the troop "surge" and would wait until Petraeus's report before considering any legislative efforts to force a troop withdrawal.

None of four key GOP senators critical of the war strategy -- Snowe, Susan M. Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio, or Pete Domenici of New Mexico -- has committed to voting for the measure to begin a troop withdrawal within 120 days. That amendment, by Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Carl Levin of Michigan, both Democrats, would complete a combat troop withdrawal by April 30 , 2008, leaving some troops in the country for counterterrorism work, to train Iraqi forces, and to protect US facilities there. Reed said support for his amendment has been growing, from 39 votes in 2006 to 48 votes in March of this year to 51 votes later that spring, when he attempted to attach it to a war spending bill.

"We are gaining momentum. We hope we can continue to build on that momentum, because I do think not only this is the right policy, but is the appropriate response to the concerns of the American public," Reed said.

Collins and fellow Senators Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu , both Republicans of New Hampshire, are cosponsoring an amendment that has a goal, but not a requirement, of withdrawing US troops from Iraq next year.