Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Republicans reignite Iraq war debate

Republicans reignite Iraq war debate
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's Iraq war policy suffered a second blow in as many days on Tuesday when another senior senator from his Republican party publicly called for U.S. troop withdrawals.

A day after Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar declared that Bush's "surge" policy of adding troops was not working, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio sent Bush a letter "expressing his belief that our nation must begin to develop a comprehensive plan for our gradual military disengagement from Iraq," Voinovich's office announced.

Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and Voinovich is a member of that panel. The Ohioan made his move even as Democrats were hailing Lugar for publicly criticizing the Iraq war, saying Lugar had reignited what had seemed a stalled debate.

In a Senate floor speech on Monday night, Lugar said the United States should draw down its troops in Iraq and redeploy some of them in the region before it is too late to do so politically -- before the U.S. 2008 presidential campaign gets into full swing and partisan confrontation limits options.

U.S. policy was limiting America's diplomatic effectiveness around the world and straining the U.S. military, Lugar said. "The costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved."

Although Democrats believe they were catapulted to power in Congress by voters who wanted to end the war, they have been unable to translate that mandate into legislation bringing about an end to the conflict, largely because not enough Republicans have joined them in the narrowly-divided Senate,

"I believe that Senator Lugar's words yesterday could be remembered as the turning point in this intractable civil war in Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002 but soured on the conflict.

"But that will depend on whether more Republicans take the stand that Senator Lugar took, the courageous stand," Reid said.

Lugar told reporters on Tuesday he was not as not looking for a showdown with the White House, but a bipartisan consensus on getting the United States to reduce its presence in Iraq, where America now has 157,000 troops.

"I'm going to find out who else agrees with me, how I can work with other senators, how I can work with the president," Lugar, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee until Democrats took power in January, said outside the Senate.

Since delivering the speech, the White House had telephoned him and he will be meeting administration officials "soon," Lugar said. Other Republican senators had been "generally supportive" of his remarks, he added.

The White House tried to play down Lugar's speech, saying he had been a thoughtful critic of the war for some time. Lugar told reporters it was true he had made many of his criticisms privately to Bush as far back as January -- but not publicly.

Even Lugar's fellow Republicans said his move had recharged the Iraq debate. One, Virginia Sen. John Warner, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested a tipping point in Congress could come as soon as next month, when a defense policy bill comes to the Senate floor -- instead of holding until September, when Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus is due to report.

But one Republican supporter of the war, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was unmoved by Lugar's public change in stance. "As much as I respect Senator Lugar, I think it's unfair to the troops in the field to say that the surge is not working," he said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted on Tuesday to approve Bush's nomination of a "war czar" for Iraq and Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, and confirmed Preston Geren as Army secretary.

(additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan)