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U.S. lawmakers hammer Bush's new Iraq plan

Reuters | January 11, 2007
Sue Pleming and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Thursday hammered President George W. Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq, leaving the White House increasingly isolated over deepening American involvement in the unpopular war.

Some of Bush's fellow Republicans joined newly empowered Democrats in voicing skepticism over whether dispatching 21,500 extra troops to help Iraq's beleaguered government regain control of Baghdad would work.

American peace activists vowed to hold thousands of protests and take to the airwaves and the Internet in a campaign to block the planned troop build-up, which they said had fueled a fresh surge of anti-war sentiment.

"It's important for our citizens to understand that as tempting as it might be, to understand the consequences of leaving before the job is done," Bush told army personnel and their families in Fort Benning, Georgia, a day after unveiling his revised Iraq strategy.

Grilled by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that Bush's plan would put more pressure on Iraqis to take over their own security, something that was vital to any eventual U.S. pullback.

Democrats who want a phased withdrawal from Iraq to start in four to six months were unswayed, and quickly lambasted Bush's push for additional forces.

As Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, its Democratic chairman offered a critical view of Bush's plan. "I believe it's a tragic mistake," said Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a 2008 presidential candidate.

Signaling widening cracks within Bush's own Republican Party over his Iraq policy, not a single committee member spoke out in his support, and a few offered pointed criticism.

"This speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam if it's carried out," said Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, also a potential 2008 White House contender.

'MONTHS NOT YEARS' FOR TROOP INCREASES

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not know how long additional troops would stay in Iraq but he thought it would be "a matter of months, not 18 months or two years."

"We clearly will know ... within a couple of months or so whether this strategy is beginning to bear fruit," he told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

Gates said extra troops would be sent in waves and that they might not all go if the Iraqi government did not keep its end of the bargain. Bush set no deadlines for the Iraqis in his White House address on Wednesday night.

Under the plan aimed at halting a collapse into civil war, Iraqi troops are to help sweep Baghdad neighborhoods clean of insurgents regardless of sectarian influences.

Early on Thursday, U.S. forces stormed an Iranian government representative's office in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil and arrested five employees, including diplomats and staff, Iranian officials said.

The U.S. military, without mentioning Iranians, said six people had been arrested in the operation, which came after Bush vowed to disrupt what he called the "flow of support" from Iran and Syria for insurgent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

Democrats, in control of Congress after November elections seen largely as an anti-war referendum, spearheaded the challenge to Bush, who has failed previously to rally support for a conflict that has killed more than 3,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

But Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who had lobbied hard for a troop increase, said it was the right decision, though failure could unleash chaos in the region.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects to have the votes, with the support of some Republicans, to pass a non-binding resolution opposing the new deployment, which would bring American troop levels in Iraq to more than 150,000.

But leading Democrats stopped short of threatening to block funding for the new forces, mindful that would give Bush and his allies a chance to accuse them of abandoning the troops.

Taking his case to a largely receptive military audience, Bush called his plan the "best chance for success" in Iraq, but acknowledged it would not yield immediate results.

An ABC News-Washington Post poll showed he will have a harder sell with the American public, with 61 percent opposed to sending more troops and 36 percent supporting it.

Britain, America's chief ally in the war, said it would not send more troops to Iraq and still planned to reduce its presence in the south of the country, but supported Washington's plan to build up forces in Baghdad.

Anti-war activists were taking to the airwaves, the Internet and the streets to pressure Congress to deny funding. They said 1,000 protests were scheduled for Thursday night in all 50 states ahead of a January 27 march in Washington that organizers expect to draw hundreds of thousands.

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