President Bush faced a new challenge to his Iraq war strategy Friday when two key Republican lawmakers proposed forcing the White House to submit a plan to start redeploying troops by the end of the year.
Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana -- former committee chairmen and authorities on foreign and military affairs -- called on Bush to be prepared to shift away from a combat role.
“We want to avoid a drift in Iraq policy,” said Lugar, who after years of standing by the president called publicly for change 2 1/2 weeks ago in a detailed critique of the White House’s current strategy in Iraq.
The much-anticipated proposal does not mandate a troop withdrawal. Congressional Democrats have been demanding such a mandate for months.
And the measure may be largely symbolic, as odds are long that it can win the support of a bipartisan supermajority of 60 senators.
On Friday, evidence emerged that military officials already were planning to begin redeploying next year. In a Pentagon briefing with reporters, Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. “Randy” Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said he had recommended that U.S. forces in his area begin to draw down in 2008 -- a process that could take a year to 18 months to complete.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that he did not know how many U.S. troops would need to remain in Iraq over the long term.
Warner and Lugar’s proposal underscored the Pyrrhic nature of the president’s success this week in persuading Republicans on Capitol Hill to wait until after a September progress report to challenge his strategy.
Bush has been working to stem defections by GOP lawmakers, who increasingly are questioning the effectiveness of a plan he announced in January to deploy 30,000 more troops in Baghdad and elsewhere in a “surge” to quell violence and allow Iraq’s political leaders to reduce sectarian tensions.
Doubts were fueled this week by a congressionally mandated report in which the administration conceded the Iraqi government had failed to make substantial progress on most of the 18 key political goals. These benchmarks are widely considered essential steps to reduce sectarian violence.
Most Republicans -- even those critical of the troop buildup -- seem willing to refrain from voting for a change in course until the administration delivers a more detailed report on Bush’s “new way forward” strategy on Sept. 15.
Without GOP support, Democrats in the Senate cannot pass such a measure.
Bush may be forced to plan for change, however.
The Warner-Lugar proposal would compel the president to present Congress with a plan before Oct. 16 to “transition U.S. combat forces from policing the civil strife or sectarian violence in Iraq,” and to “refocus” military operations in Iraq on guarding the borders, mounting counterterrorism operations, protecting U.S. personnel and training Iraqis.
Warner and Lugar recommend that the plan be able to be implemented by the end of the year.
“The surge must not be an excuse for failing to prepare for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is withdrawal, redeployment or some other option,” Lugar said. “We saw in 2003, after the initial invasion of Iraq, the disastrous results of failing to plan adequately for contingencies.”
The proposal would need Democratic support to be attached to a defense spending bill now being debated in the Senate.
But a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reacted coolly Friday, suggesting Democrats were reluctant to give the president as much leeway as Warner and Lugar would allow in their measure.
“They put a lot of faith in the president that he will voluntarily change course and voluntarily begin to reduce the large U.S. combat footprint in Iraq,” Jim Manley said.
“Unfortunately, Sen. Reid is not as confident in the president’s willingness to change course voluntarily. In the fifth year of the war, we need strong legislation that compels the president to change course, change the mission and begin the reduction of U.S. troops.”
Reid and most other Senate Democrats back a proposal by Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island that would compel a redeployment to begin within 120 days of enactment and be completed by April 30.
It was unclear Friday how much Republican support Lugar and Warner would be able to attract for their measure, as most lawmakers were already headed home for the weekend.
Both men have played prominent roles in widening the gap between GOP lawmakers and the president over Iraq.
Warner helped lead opposition to the president’s surge plan earlier this year, though he opposed binding measures to confront the White House. And Lugar’s passionate speech prompted other Senate Republicans to go public with their doubts.
The senators, both Navy veterans, are highly regarded voices on military issues. Warner is past chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lugar is past chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Their proposal drew a cautious response Friday from White House spokesman Tony Fratto. “We respect Sens. Lugar and Warner and will review carefully the language they have proposed,” Fratto said. “But we believe the ‘new way forward’ strategy, which became fully operational less than a month ago, deserves the time to succeed.”
Bush spoke by video conference Friday with civilian and military officials working in Iraqi provinces to restore basic services. As part of his strategy, Bush has increased the number of provincial reconstruction teams.
“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Bush told reporters afterward. “But these people at the grass roots understand that most Iraqis want to live in peace and that, with time, we’ll be able to help them realize that dream.”
Bush administration and Pentagon officials continued Friday to plead for patience and to caution against a rush to pull troops out of Iraq.
Gates, who has talked with members of Congress about redeploying troops, said the Pentagon could not yet adequately assess the military surge. “I think that’s where we are with September,” he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on the morning network shows Friday, and national security advisor Stephen Hadley spoke with National Public Radio, to reinforce Bush’s message that his strategy had made some progress and needed two more months before it could be judged.
Hadley said administration officials had succeeded in persuading key Republicans to grant the time. “I think Congress got it and they agree. And it’s the right place for us to be,” he said.
At the Pentagon, Mixon talked about how a troop drawdown could occur. “I think that over time, in a very methodical and well-thought-out way ... that we could have a reduction of force that could begin in January of 2008,” Mixon said.
He also told reporters that troop drawdowns were delicate, suggesting that a too-speedy exit could cause chaos.
“It seems to me that we should first decide what we want the end state to be in Iraq ... and then determine how we can reach that end state and how much time that will take,” he said. “To me, that seems to be the most important thing, because there will be consequences of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and Paul Richter contributed to this report.