Friday, January 05, 2007

Key Democrat didn't get the message: Might consider troop boost in Iraq

Key Democrat might consider troop boost in Iraq
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush is likely to link any short-term increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq to political milestones or other conditions, a key Senate Democrat said on Thursday, saying he might consider backing such a "surge" if those conditions are right.

Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin also predicted the Republican president would soon find a way to end the "open-ended commitment" of U.S. troops to Iraq, even if Bush does propose a short-term boost in forces.

"I can't believe the president is simply going to say, 'We're going to increase troops in Iraq,'" Levin told reporters outside the Senate. "It's likely the president would add something of a conditionality to it."

"The (recent congressional) election is far too clear, that the public wants to change course and find a way out of Iraq and not get in deeper in Iraq," said Levin, who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The White House says Bush is preparing to unveil a new strategy on Iraq that could come next week.

A quick, short-term troop increase, or "surge," is just one of many policy changes under consideration to try to reverse the deteriorating situation. But it is the one that has garnered the most attention in Washington, as American military deaths in Iraq have climbed above 3,000 and analysts question whether a troop increase can stem violence.

While the war's unpopularity helped Democrats win majorities in November congressional elections, lawmakers could probably not stop a quick boost in U.S. troops without cutting off war funding, which they have so far been unwilling to do.

But Congress, with its new Democratic majority, could pass resolutions calling for a drawdown of U.S. forces if it does not like Bush's new strategy, Levin said.

The new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, said the American people had "rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end." In her first remarks as speaker, she said Bush should make clear to the Iraqis that they must defend their own security so the United States can "responsibly" redeploy its troops.

While he had no information on Bush's intentions, Levin said he thought Bush would "at a minimum" reverse the open-ended nature of the U.S. troop commitment in Iraq.

"I predict, whatever kind of surge he's going to propose, that he's going to find a way to correct the statement that he made twice to the Iraqis that we're there as long as the Iraqis want us to be there," Levin said.

Levin said any temporary "surge" he might consider backing, would need to be combined with the announcement of a reduction in U.S. forces starting in four to six months, and set political milestones for Iraq to meet.

Options developed by military planners could include up to 30,000 additional troops, according to defense officials. The United States now has 132,000 troops in Iraq.

Some other key Democrats, such as Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have rejected the idea of a U.S. troop "surge," calling it the "absolute wrong strategy." Republicans appear divided on the issue, with Arizona Sen. John McCain supporting the idea.