Democrats seek 2008 Iraq troop withdrawal

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 8, 2007 3:58pm EST

A U.S. soldier of the 3rd Squadron 61st Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the dust as Blackhawk helicopters take off south of Baghdad, March 5, 2007. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

A U.S. soldier of the 3rd Squadron 61st Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the dust as Blackhawk helicopters take off south of Baghdad, March 5, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress on Thursday proposed withdrawing all American combat troops from Iraq by next year, saying President George W. Bush's war strategy had failed and that the United States must instead focus on a brewing storm in Afghanistan.

The move put Democrats, who took control of Congress in January, on a collision course with Bush, who does not want lawmakers meddling in how he wages a four-year-old war that has seen escalating violence in Iraq and waning support at home.

"Our troops are out by no later than August of 2008" under the legislation, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. That deadline is just three months before presidential elections.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled a proposal to begin withdrawing soldiers from Iraq within four months and pull all combat troops out by March 31, 2008.

Senate debate could begin early next week, unless Republicans block it. "The president's strategy in Iraq is not working and Congress must decide whether to follow his failed policies or whether to change course," Reid told reporters.

The White House promptly warned that Bush would veto such legislation if it reached his desk. "The administration would vehemently oppose and ultimately veto any legislation that looks like what was described today," White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters traveling with Bush to Brazil, after the House Democrats unveiled their plans.

Bartlett called the House Democrats' plan an "artificial precipitous withdrawal from Iraq."

But before Bush could wield his veto pen, Democrats in both chambers would have hurdles to overcome.

Pelosi must convince fellow liberals in the House -- who would prefer a faster withdrawal -- to back conditions on Iraq war funding that they think are too timid. She also must solidify support among conservative Democrats skittish about limiting the president's powers to wage war.

The new conditions on the Iraq war would be attached to a huge emergency spending bill likely to be debated on the House floor later this month. A test vote could come as early as next week in the House Appropriations Committee.

Senate Democrats have only a 51-49 majority, and 60 votes are often needed to scale procedural hurdles. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, acknowledged they will need Republican support for "true course change in Iraq."

House Democratic leaders will try to build support for their measure by emphasizing that they would fully fund the U.S. troops already fighting in Iraq. They also will argue a need to put more resources into battling Taliban and al Qaeda forces regrouping in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has been blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States while operating in an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban.

House Democrats are dropping other sweeteners into what could be a nearly $110 billion bill by giving $4.3 billion in new aid to farmers, many in conservative states, along with $2.9 billion to continue rebuilding southern states hit by hurricanes in 2005.

OUT OF IRAQ

In calling for an end to the U.S. involvement in the Iraq war, House Democrats said military activities should begin shifting to Afghanistan. They would add $1.2 billion to Bush's February request for fighting that war.

"The proposal ... will essentially redirect more of our resources to the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, fighting the right war in the right place against the people who attacked us," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat.

The House plan provides for U.S. troops to withdraw even sooner than August, 2008 if the situation does not improve in Iraq. If Bush could not certify progress there, withdrawals would begin in July of this year and be complete by December 31.

Both the Senate and House plans would allow some troops to stay to train Iraqi soldiers and protect U.S. diplomats.

Bush said in January he would send 21,500 more combat forces, angering Democrats who say they won last November's elections because of public discontent with the war in Iraq.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Caren Bohan and Donna Smith)

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