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Report falls on wary ears

Times Staff Writers

After two days of testimony before Congress, the Bush administration’s top diplomat and military commander in Iraq made few inroads in their effort to convince skeptical lawmakers that the White House war strategy was working.

In appearances before two Senate committees Tuesday, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker faced much harsher and pointed questioning than they did a day earlier in a visit to the House, where lawmakers focused on plans for winding down the U.S. troop buildup.

By Tuesday, it was clear that although such a drawdown would remove the nearly 30,000 reinforcements by next summer, it would leave 130,000 troops in Iraq, a force size that troubled both Republicans and Democrats.

Especially concerned were GOP senators who face reelection next year. They seemed worried by the increasing likelihood that there would be little political progress in Iraq and high levels of U.S. troops there come election day 2008.

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President Bush plans an address to the nation Thursday evening, in which he is expected to embrace Petraeus’ recommendations.

At a White House meeting Tuesday with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, congressional leaders criticized the administration plan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she told Bush that Petraeus’ presentation sounded like “a plan for at least a 10-year, high-level U.S. presence in Iraq.”

She said the president must explain “why our country should have to continue to make that commitment.”

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A critical question for congressional Democrats seeking to force earlier and more drastic troop withdrawals is how many Republicans will keep backing the current White House strategy.

Among the potentially vulnerable Republicans, Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who is up for reelection next year, emphatically asked Tuesday for objective measures of progress.

“Americans want to see light at the end of tunnel,” Coleman told Petraeus and Crocker.

“We need to see some plan out there,” he said.

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Coleman has opposed Democratic withdrawal proposals all year, but he was an early critic of the “surge” in the number of forces and was one of seven Republicans who voted for a measure in July to mandate more downtime for troops.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who has not supported any of the Democratic measures opposing the increase in troops, strongly criticized the Iraqi government and said she would support what she called “action-forcing measures.”

The comments suggested that Dole, who also faces reelection, might be open to backing a Democratic effort to force a change in the U.S. military strategy. In the House on Monday, few Democrats pushed Petraeus on his recommendation to keep high levels of troops in Iraq. But on Tuesday, Senate leaders said they would advance legislation to mandate a swifter withdrawal than envisioned by the administration.

“To merely remove the surge troops is no progress at all. We’ll be back in the same position we were two years ago,” said Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

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Democrats have failed all year to muster enough Republican support to force the White House to change course.

Over the last two days, a number of GOP lawmakers have cited the progress outlined by Petraeus to justify their opposition to a legislated troop withdrawal.

But the doubts expressed by Dole, Coleman and others could provide a renewed opportunity for Democrats, who are working on alternative proposals that stop short of setting a withdrawal deadline but could attract more Republican support.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, another member of the Democratic leadership, said a proposal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to mandate more rest between deployments for troops that have served in Iraq is likely to be reintroduced.

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Webb’s proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), garnered seven GOP votes in July, but it was still defeated on a procedural vote.

Other ideas may include requiring the White House to plan, if not implement, a more substantial withdrawal than Petraeus has outlined.

Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) proposed such a plan over the summer, and a large bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House is working on similar legislation.

It is unclear how much more GOP support Democrats will be able to garner when they restart the war debate, probably next week. Durbin said Tuesday that Senate Democrats were reaching out to about half a dozen Republicans in one-on-one conversations.

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For most of the day, many members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees used their time at the microphone to speak out rather than ask questions.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an opponent of the war, suggested that Petraeus was being overly optimistic about the progress since the troop buildup.

Referring to a meeting with the general when he was in charge of training Iraqi security forces in 2005, Boxer suggested he had been unrealistically positive about the abilities of the Iraqi military.

She cited that meeting in questioning his presentation Tuesday.

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“I ask you to take off your rosy glasses,” she said.

Democrats also sought to press Crocker and Petraeus on how long U.S. troops would be in Iraq, a question that was almost absent Monday. Both U.S. officials demurred.

“I think in the past we have set some expectations that simply couldn’t be met, and I’m trying not to do that,” Crocker said.

Warner, a moderate Republican, questioned the “bottom-up” reconciliation plans in Iraqi locales being promoted by the administration.

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Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said that the current political strategy of courting the support of local ethnic and sectarian leaders amounted to “tribalism” and that the nation-building effort had faltered.

In an unexpected exchange, Warner asked Petraeus if the Iraq mission was making the United States safer.

“Sir, I don’t know, actually,” Petraeus said. “I have not sat down and sorted [it] out in my own mind.”

Warner responded, “I hope you do consider it very carefully, as I know you will.”

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The exchange was surprising because in a brief trip to Iraq last week, Bush stressed the connections between the war and U.S. security. “What happens here in Anbar matters to the security of the United States,” the president told troops in the western Iraqi province.

Later, realizing his apparent gaffe, Petraeus expanded on his original answer. “I think that we have very, very clear and very serious national interests in Iraq,” he said. “Achieving those interests has very serious implications for our safety.”

There were few other moments of drama in the hearing, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a “surge” supporter who also is up for reelection next year, made the discussion very personal.

Under questioning by Graham, Petraeus acknowledged that his own son, an ROTC cadet at MIT, “may well” go to Iraq after graduation.

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“There’s no ‘may well,’ ” snapped Graham. “He’ll either be in Iraq or Afghanistan. You know that, don’t you?”

Graham continued: “And the recommendations you’re making make it more likely that your own son is going to go to war. You know that, don’t you?”

“That’s correct, sir,” Petraeus answered.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.


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