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Republican discord on Iraq grows

Times Staff Writer

Wearied by the lack of progress in Iraq and by the steady stream of military funerals back home, a growing number of Republican lawmakers who had stood loyally with President Bush are insisting his strategy has failed and are calling on him to bring the war to an end.

In the last two weeks, three GOP senators -- including one of the party’s leading voices on foreign affairs and one of Bush’s strongest allies -- have urged the president to change course now so U.S. troops can start to withdraw.

And Friday, in interviews with the Los Angeles Times, two more Senate Republicans bluntly voiced disappointment with the president’s approach and pressed for change.

“It should be clear to the president that there needs to be a new strategy,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “Our policy in Iraq is drifting.”

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Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who helped lead the charge earlier this year against Democratic efforts to oppose Bush’s troop buildup, said: “We don’t seem to be making a lot of progress.”

It is vital to have “a clear blueprint for how we were going to draw down,” he said.

None of these GOP lawmakers has embraced Democratic legislation to compel a troop withdrawal. But nearly five years after congressional Republicans overwhelmingly answered Bush’s call for military action against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, some are doing what was once unthinkable: challenging a wartime president from their own party.

By publicly branding Bush’s buildup a failure and calling for troops to begin coming home, they are forcing a reluctant White House to reassess how long it can maintain a large military presence in Iraq.

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Administration officials had hoped GOP lawmakers would stand with them at least until September, when the top generals in Iraq are scheduled to report on the effectiveness of the troop buildup.

The tide of Republican dissent began to grow two weeks ago when Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, former chairman of the foreign relations committee, delivered an earnest plea for change from the floor of the Senate. Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio expressed similar doubts in a letter he sent to the president the next day, and Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the former chairman of the armed services committee, openly praised Lugar for speaking out.

On Thursday, Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico joined the group of dissenters, which just a few weeks ago included only a handful of GOP lawmakers -- led by Nebraska’s Sen. Chuck Hagel and Oregon’s Sen. Gordon H. Smith.

Several Republican lawmakers have predicted that defections would accelerate in the weeks to come, despite repeated pleas for patience from the White House and the military.

“It’s as if the dike has burst,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who until recently had been one of the few outspoken GOP critics of the president’s war strategy.

Today, bills in the House and Senate to adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group -- an implicit rejection of current U.S. policy in Iraq -- have the backing of 40 Republicans combined. Though it did not set a deadline for withdrawing American troops, the bipartisan commission’s report advocated a series of substantial policy changes, including more regional diplomacy, to set the stage for a troop pullout in the spring.

Alexander is the leading GOP co-sponsor of the Senate’s Iraq Study Group bill, which is also sponsored by five Democrats and Republicans including Gregg, Collins, Domenici, Utah’s Robert F. Bennett and New Hampshire’s John E. Sununu.

House Republican co-sponsors include Californians David Dreier of San Dimas and Mary Bono of Palm Springs.

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This week, another House Republican, conservative Rep. John T. Doolittle from Roseville, Calif., labeled the Iraq war “a quagmire” and called for a reduced U.S. military presence, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Three other GOP senators -- including conservatives Sam Brownback of Kansas and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a close Bush ally -- also have signed on to legislation calling for decentralizing Iraq, a direct challenge to the Bush administration’s official position.

Bush continues to say he will resist pressure to withdraw troops prematurely, a position he reiterated in a defiant Fourth of July speech in West Virginia, in which he said such action would “hand the enemy a victory and put America’s security at risk.”

In Iraq, senior military commanders said again Friday that the 30,000-troop “surge” announced by Bush in January still needed more time to control violence primarily in Baghdad and to allow the Iraqi government to bring together the country’s sectarian communities.

Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. troops in provinces just south of Baghdad, warned that any move to withdraw the additional troops in the coming months would allow insurgents to rebuild their capabilities and plunge the Iraqi capital into even more violence.

“It would be a mess,” Lynch said, echoing the views of other senior commanders -- including Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. operations, who has estimated that Iraqi forces would not be ready to assume security in Baghdad until spring.

Many Republican lawmakers remain wary of backing legislation that challenges the White House directly, preferring to try to persuade Bush to change course on his own to spare Republicans from having to force his hand, thus further splitting the party.

“There’s always the desire to support the president,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, a maverick Republican who was among the first to call for the administration to develop a withdrawal plan. “He is the commander in chief. You hesitate to express a discordant voice at a time of war.”

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Snowe is sponsoring legislation that would require the military to begin planning a redeployment unless the Iraqi government reaches goals identified by the White House and Congress to reduce sectarian strife.

Even with the new public criticism of the White House, few congressional Republicans appear ready to back legislation that would compel a withdrawal, a centerpiece of the congressional Democratic war policy. This spring only two Republicans in the Senate and two in the House voted for a withdrawal timeline.

But the recent outpouring of criticism signals a new level of anxiety among many Republicans about the way their president is conducting the war.

Despite the administration’s professed faith in the current Iraqi government, politicians in Baghdad have still not passed a law to distribute oil wealth that many see as crucial to diffusing sectarian tensions there.

U.S. military commanders concede that despite years of effort and billions of dollars in expenditures, Iraqi security forces are still not prepared to take primary responsibility for keeping the peace.

And U.S. casualties continue to mount.

April through June was the deadliest three-month period for U.S. forces since the war began in 2003, a tally that resonates with lawmakers, who often speak to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Domenici has said that was why he decided to go public with his concerns about the White House war strategy.

“You find such a strong willingness on the parts of the parents to acknowledge that their children really wanted to be in this war,” Domenici said Friday on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “Only of late do I find that parents, a couple parents, saying ... ‘Now I want you to also try to hurry up, try to get on the side of where we can get out of there a little sooner.’ ”

At the same time, a number of Republicans up for reelection next year -- including Snowe and Sununu -- face growing voter discontent back home.

Democratic leaders and antiwar activists are pressuring Republicans to show their commitment to changing course by voting for a withdrawal. Later this month, Democrats will again bring the issue up for a vote.

But Democratic leaders concede that the president is likely to change course only when, in the words of veteran Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), Republican lawmakers “march down Pennsylvania Avenue” like they did three decades ago when they told President Nixon that he had to resign or would very likely be impeached.

There are signs that at least some in the administration are reconsidering the current strategy.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has repeatedly indicated that he would prefer to see the buildup end in the fall, perhaps as early as September when the administration is due to submit its progress report to Congress. Gates, who is sympathetic to the Iraq Study Group recommendations, also has testified on Capitol Hill that he hopes the additional forces could be home by the end of the year.

But Alexander warned Friday that the president is running out of time.

“The parade is forming. We hope he’ll get to the front of it,” he said. “It may not be this week or next. But it needs to be soon.”

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.


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