Congress less than keen on Iraq 'surge'

Times Staff Writer

The leader of the Senate Democrats, Harry Reid of Nevada, seemed to open the door Sunday to supporting a temporary increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. Two days later, he shut it.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) returned from two days in Iraq and stated his opposition to a so-called troop surge. "It would create more targets," he said.

As President Bush considers whether to temporarily boost the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, few members of Congress are stepping forward to forcefully promote the idea. So far, the political response has mostly been silence, skepticism or outright opposition.

Bush is considering adding as many as 30,000 troops to the force of about 140,000 already in Iraq, but he has not committed to the idea. He is expected to launch a new Iraq strategy, which he calls a "new way forward," in early January. That would coincide with the Democrats taking majority positions in the House and Senate after a midterm election that was widely interpreted as rejecting the president's conduct of the Iraq war.

Members of Congress have limited reach in shaping day-to-day policy in Iraq. The effect of their votes on spending for the war will play out only in months and years, and the president has demonstrated time and again his readiness to buck the tide of the Democrats' opposition.

But broad political opposition has historically put reins on unpopular military policies. Some members of Congress are asking what mission the troops would be charged with performing and are questioning whether success is likely.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), considered a front-runner for his party's presidential nomination in 2008, has been a leader of a limited group that has pressed for a more aggressive approach in Iraq, including the dispatch of more troops to stem the sectarian violence and insurgent attacks.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential candidate who won reelection to the Senate in November as an independent, has strongly favored sending additional troops.

McCain, Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) visited Baghdad last week. Collins said she was "not yet convinced that additional troops" would help bring a lasting peace.

Many Republican leaders have been reluctant to address the question, and Democrats who have spoken about it remain skeptical or oppose a troop increase.

The incoming Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has made no public statements on whether to increase the deployment. He is waiting "to hear from the folks at the Pentagon," said a spokesman, Don Stewart.

On Sunday, Reid said on ABC News' "This Week" that he would go along with a troop surge if it lasted two or three months and was "part of a program to get us out of there ... by this time next year."

But two days later, he came out against an increase. In a blog posting at the Huffington Post website, he wrote: "Frankly, I don't believe that more troops is the answer for Iraq.... I do not support an escalation of the conflict."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who is to become House speaker, opposes sending more troops, as does the second-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a leading Democratic spokesman on military affairs, said in a telephone interview: "Put me down as skeptical."

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