White House denies Iraq policy rethink
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush has no plans to withdraw troops from Iraq now, the White House said on Monday, despite increasing pressure from members of his own Republican party for a change in war strategy.
But Senate Democrats planned to hold votes on troop pullouts, hoping to capitalize on Republican defections to build a congressional majority around an exit strategy.
"A growing number of Republicans are now speaking against the failed strategy in Iraq, and that's good," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"I think we will find the next couple of weeks whether the Republicans who have said publicly they think the present course should change are willing to vote with us," the Nevada Democrat said.
At least one such Republican said she was willing to do so. Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, an early critic of Bush's policy of sending more troops to Iraq this year, said she was ready to vote for binding legislation requiring a troop withdrawal.
Starting in Cleveland on Tuesday, Bush plans to lay out what an aide called "his vision for the post-surge" in a move to assure Americans that he too wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops eventually, The Washington Post reported in Tuesday's editions.
Top administration officials also have begun talking with key Senate Republicans about Bush's view of the next phase in the war, the report said.
The White House devised the political strategy after days of intense internal discussion about how to respond to Republican dissent over Bush's war policy, the Post said.
On Monday, the White House denied a New York Times report that debate was intensifying over whether Bush should try to prevent more Republican defections by announcing intentions for a gradual withdrawal of troops from high-casualty Iraqi areas.
"There is no debate right now on withdrawing forces right now from Iraq," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Following recent calls for a change in strategy by lawmakers such as Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Times said officials fear the last pillars of political support among U.S. Senate Republicans for Bush's Iraq policy were collapsing.
An administration report to Congress due July 15 assessing progress in Iraq is expected to further fuel the debate. Administration officials say it will show a mixed review on progress being made.
The report, expected to be delivered to Congress by the end of the week, "will present a picture of satisfactory progress on some benchmarks and not on others. This is to be expected given the report is a preliminary snapshot of what are the early stages of the full surge," a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.
Bush has been steadfast against setting deadlines for withdrawing troops and has warned that prematurely pulling forces out of Iraq would hand the enemy a victory and risk America's security.
He has repeatedly made the point that when conditions warrant, U.S. troops will be brought home, Snow said.
"But the idea of trying to make a political judgment rather than a military judgment about how to have forces in the field is simply not true," Snow said.
Senate debate on Iraq would be part of work on a defense policy bill, beginning with a vote, possibly on Tuesday, on a plan by Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb to establish minimum rest times between deployments for troops in Iraq, some of whom have done several tours of duty.
A vote would follow on a withdrawal plan by Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the Armed Services Committee chairman. It is expected to require a reduction of U.S. troops to start soon with a goal of finishing the drawdown next spring.
Reid acknowledged he did not know whether he had the votes to overcome Senate procedural hurdles. While willing to work with Republicans unhappy with the war, he said he did not want to water down pullout proposals to a "fig leaf."
Virginia Sen. John Warner, a leading Republican voice on defense who says Bush's Iraq strategy is drifting, recommended senators wait at least until they see the administration's July 15 report on Iraq required by a recent war funding bill.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray)
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