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BUSH INSISTS CONGRESS CAN’T HALT IRAQ BUILDUP

Times Staff Writer

As Congress and the administration gird for conflict over troop levels in Iraq, President Bush is asserting that he has the power to send more U.S. forces, regardless of what lawmakers want.

“I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it,” Bush said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” When asked whether he thought he had the authority to send additional troops in the face of opposition from the Democratic majority in Congress, Bush said: “In this situation, I do, yeah.”

The president’s comments were part of an administration effort to quell the growing roar of criticism about its Iraq strategy, as Democrats plan nonbinding resolutions opposing the troop increase and as some Republicans echo their resistance to the plan.

Bush acknowledged that some of the administration’s steps had contributed to Iraq’s instability and said any mistakes should be laid at his feet. “If people want a scapegoat, they’ve got one right here in me because it’s my decisions,” the president said.

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“No question, decisions have made things unstable,” he added. “But the question is: Can we succeed?”

On Wednesday, the president unveiled a plan to subdue the growing violence in Baghdad and nearby Al Anbar province by adding 21,500 soldiers and Marines to the 132,000 U.S. troops in the country. The decision ran counter to a recommendation by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that the administration draw down troops, and it brought denunciations from, among others, Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

In the “60 Minutes” interview, taped last week, Bush said he wasn’t bothered by his low approval ratings and called himself the “educator in chief,” arguing that sharing his views would help to overcome public and congressional resistance. “I’m going to have to keep explaining,” he said.

He said he was discouraged by the handling of Saddam Hussein’s execution, which he saw on an Internet video but stopped watching before the trap door opened under the former Iraqi leader. “I didn’t want to watch the whole thing,” Bush said.

And he expressed pride in U.S. achievements in Iraq: “I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude,” Bush said.

Asked if he owed the Iraqi people an apology for not providing better security after the 2003 invasion, he said: “Not at all.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” said complaints from Congress would not stop the administration, which “cannot run a war by committee.”

He disagreed with the suggestion that the administration had overruled military commanders who argued against increasing troops, and he sidestepped a question about Americans’ dissatisfaction with the war.

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“I don’t think any president worth his salt can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls,” Cheney said when asked about midterm-election exit polls showing that only 17% of voters supported an increase in troops.

Withdrawing forces, Cheney warned, would simply “revalidate the strategy that Osama bin Laden has been following from Day One: that if you kill enough Americans you can force them to quit, that we don’t have the stomach for the fight.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), author of a bill that would require the president to get authorization from Congress before raising troop levels in Iraq, charged that Bush was ignoring his generals, the Iraq Study Group, the public and Congress.

“The stubbornness of this administration means repeating the same colossal mistakes over and over,” he said in a statement released by his office Sunday.

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Administration officials have said that the troop increase would help the Iraqi military confront the sectarian violence that has cleaved Baghdad, and that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki would no longer place restrictions on confronting the 60,000-strong militia of leading Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, a strong source of support for Maliki’s government.

“There will be no safe havens, including Sadr City,” national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley told ABC’s “This Week,” referring to the cleric’s stronghold in Baghdad.

Hadley said he expected Congress to fall into line with the administration’s plan. “We will be able to persuade the Congress that this is the only option for success in Iraq,” he said.

Citing the choices of staying the course or withdrawing, Hadley added: “It’s simply clear that the Iraqis are not ready to take responsibility” for security in Baghdad. “We have to help them. And we believe -- the president believes -- in the end of the day, Congress is going to understand that’s the only course for success.”

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Republicans appearing on the Sunday talk shows decried what they described as Democratic obstruction and warned of the stakes.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely presidential contender who has long called for a troop increase, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that failure in Iraq would be a “catastrophe in the form of increased Iranian influence,” regional instability and increased bloodshed.

He dismissed as a political ploy the Democratic plan for a resolution condemning the troop increase. “The opponents of doing this are obligated, in my view, to tell the American people what the option is if we do leave. What is the option?” he asked.

Democrats argued that the looming catastrophe Republicans were warning of had already arrived. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who might vie for his party’s presidential nomination, followed McCain on CBS and cited increased bloodshed and growing Iranian influence in the country.

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Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, laid out an alternative plan similar to the Iraq Study Group’s. He advocated a phased pullout, along with improved reconstruction efforts and increased diplomacy that includes Syria and Iran.

“We cannot impose a military solution on what has effectively become a civil war,” Obama said. “I think it’s important to understand that the options are not either total withdrawal or a ‘stay-the-course-plus,’ which is essentially what the administration is proposing, but rather the kind of thoughtful bipartisan strategy that’s been suggested by not just Democrats but also Republicans, not just civilians but also by the military.”

On CNN’s “Late Edition,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) advocated withdrawing combat troops in six to eight months, but said he did not support cutting off funds for troops in Iraq. “We will continue to support our troops, although we disagree with the policy,” he said.

Also appearing on CNN, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), another potential presidential candidate, disagreed with Levin’s timeline and suggested that a deadline of one year from now be set for Iraqis to assume responsibility and for American troops remaining in Iraq to be limited to training, searching for Al Qaeda and protecting American resources.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com


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