War Criticism and Concerns Both Growing
Apprehension over the war in Iraq surged Thursday as a group of lawmakers demanded that President Bush develop plans to withdraw troops and a top Pentagon official expressed concern about sagging public support for the U.S. military effort.
After a deadly increase in violence in Iraq, congressional critics of the war grew more vocal in demanding a change in policy, and antiwar activists staged a rally near the White House.
The White House said Bush planned to deliver a speech this month on the importance of the U.S. mission, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged to work harder to explain the administration’s objectives.
“I’m going to, like I think all members of the administration, perhaps try to do more to get out to the public to talk about what it is we are trying to achieve and what it is we are achieving,” Rice said at a news conference. “So I would say this is not going to be an American enterprise for the long term.”
The setbacks have triggered growing concern at the Pentagon, where a senior general said he was worried about declining public support.
“It is concerning that our public isn’t as supportive as perhaps they once were,” said Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. “We’d like, I believe, to try to reverse those figures and start the trend back the other direction. Because it’s extremely important to the soldier and the Marine, the airman and the sailor over there, to know that their country’s behind them.”
Conway alluded to the precedent of Vietnam, in which plummeting public support for the war was blamed for undercutting the U.S. effort.
A Gallup poll this week found that about 6 in 10 Americans advocated a partial or full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This month, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 41% of Americans approved of how Bush was handling Iraq, the president’s worst grade to date.
Insurgent attacks have claimed the lives of hundreds of Iraqi civilians in recent weeks. Eighty-eight U.S. troops died in May and 45 were killed in the first half of June, the highest level since 126 troops were slain in January, before the Iraqi election. As of Thursday, at least 1,713 U.S. troops had been killed since the start of the war.
Drawing a parallel with Vietnam, Conway recounted the story of a Marine colonel negotiating the U.S. withdrawal with his Vietnamese counterpart in 1975.
“And the Marine said to him, ‘We beat you every time on the battlefield,’ ” Conway said. “And the Vietnamese colonel said, ‘That is true, but it’s also irrelevant.’
“And the fact is, they realized what I think our contemporary enemy realizes -- that American public opinion is the center of gravity,” Conway said. “That a democracy can’t do certain things if, in fact, the citizens don’t support it.”
Conway said U.S. commanders in Iraq were against an “artificially imposed deadline” for a withdrawal of troops -- a subject debated Thursday on Capitol Hill.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a resolution that would require Bush to submit a plan for troop withdrawal by the end of the year and to begin the pullout by October 2006.
“After 2 1/2 years, it’s right to take a fresh look. We have a right to ask, ‘What are the goals?’ ” said Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, one of the Republican sponsors of the measure.
“It’s time to get serious about an exit strategy,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, a Democratic sponsor.
Other sponsors of the resolution include Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Petaluma).
Although the administration opposes any requirement for withdrawals or timetables, Jones, a conservative Republican, said the measure would provide a way for Americans to “debate and discuss” the issue.
“If we didn’t do this today, we may be here in 10 years,” Jones said.
Conway said a deadline would embolden Iraqi insurgents to continue daily attacks and bide their time until U.S. troops left.
The insurgents “know our history, just like we study them,” Conway said. “And they see where we have withdrawn previously -- in Vietnam, in Beirut, in Somalia. And nothing would make them happier, I suppose, than to think that there is a deadline out there.”
Separately, House members Thursday debated a Democratic amendment to the 2006 defense spending measure that would require Bush to tell Congress within 30 days what his criteria would be for bringing troops home.
Unlike the resolution by Jones and others, the amendment -- by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) -- did not specify a timetable for withdrawal.
The White House said Bush shared the desire of many Americans to see U.S. military personnel return from Iraq as soon as possible, but rejected establishing a deadline for withdrawal.
“It would be absolutely the wrong message to send to set some sort of artificial timetable,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “Our troops understand the importance of completing the mission.”
McClellan said Bush would make the case for his Iraq policy in a series of public remarks in which he would focus on the importance of Iraq to the war on terrorism.
“He will be continuing to update the American people about the progress that we are making, the difficulties and dangers that remain, and the strategy we have for succeeding,” McClellan said.
The communication campaign includes a speech June 28, the one-year anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqi people.
In addition, the White House said Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari would meet with Bush at the White House next Friday.
The White House rejected requests by lawmakers and antiwar groups that Bush respond to the “Downing Street memo” and other prewar British government documents that foreshadowed U.S. military action against Iraq.
The Downing Street memo reported minutes of a meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisors indicating that the U.S. considered an attack on Iraq to be inevitable eight months before the war began.
More than 30 members of Congress attended a meeting Thursday called by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, to discuss the British documents. The meeting was not an official hearing of Conyers’ committee and was held in a room in the basement of the Capitol.
John C. Bonifaz, one of four witnesses invited to meet with lawmakers and the cofounder of an organization called AfterDowningStreet.com, said that if the documents were proven to be true, the president may have violated a federal law against misleading Congress, and his actions would be grounds for impeachment.
“The American people deserve to know if the president lied,” Bonifaz said.
Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in action April 4, 2004, told lawmakers the Downing Street memo confirmed what she had already suspected: “The leadership of this country rushed us into an illegal invasion of another sovereign country on prefabricated and cherry-picked intelligence.”
Sheehan is the cofounder of Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization whose members have lost a relative in combat and who oppose the war.
Former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who traveled to Niger to investigate the alleged sale of processed uranium ore from the country to Iraq, and Ray McGovern, a former CIA official, also met with Conyers and other lawmakers.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) was one of more than 30 lawmakers who announced the formation of an “Out of Iraq” congressional caucus.
After the hearing, Conyers and other lawmakers went to Lafayette Park across from the White House for a rally organized by AfterDowningStreet.com. Kevin Zeese, director of Democracy Rising, urged protesters to “give a shout out if you think we were misled.” He was greeted by cheers from the hundreds of demonstrators.
Some members of the crowd broke into chants of “Bring them home now!” and “End this war!” and carried banners calling for Bush’s impeachment. The rally brought out young and old, Washington residents and people who had traveled from across the country.
“Bush should be impeached for lying to Congress and then prosecuted for war crimes,” said Carol Moore, a 57-year-old writer and resident of Washington. “Impeached and prosecuted.”
A small group of counter-protesters demanded support for U.S. troops.
Conyers and others sought to enter the White House gates to deliver petitions gathered by an anti-Bush group, MoveOn.Org, and others demanding that the president respond to the British documents. The crowd chanted “Let Conyers in!” and the congressman eventually was allowed through the gates.
Analysts said the antiwar rhetoric on display Thursday marked a reversal from recent months. The Iraqi election Jan. 30 boosted hopes for progress, experts said, but the situation has since deteriorated.
“Now you’ve got a combination of a lot of death, a lot of violence, things getting worse and no real convincing argument from the president as to why,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst for the Brookings Institution, a Washington political think tank. “It was almost unnatural that there was such a long hiatus in antiwar activity.”
The antiwar movement has reappeared in part because lawmakers -- especially Democrats -- have avoided rhetoric that could be perceived as critical of troops but keep hearing differently from constituents, activists said.
“We see this as the beginning of the end,” said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic representative from Maine who is executive director of the antiwar group Win Without War. “It’s the very beginning of a new wave of activism on this war. There’s a real sense that something is beginning to move.”
Times staff writers Mary Curtius, Tyler Marshall, Mark Mazzetti and Warren Vieth contributed to this report.