Washington -- Sixteen House Democrats led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma called on President Bush on Wednesday to begin the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, just as some administration supporters are starting to question the wisdom of staying the course in the war.
So far, the Bush administration remains publicly unshakable in its position that the elections on Jan. 30 should proceed despite fears about safety for voters in parts of Iraq. The president and other administration officials have said U.S. forces will start withdrawing only once U.S.-trained Iraqi forces can take responsibility for more of the patrolling and the fighting. And even then, the withdrawal would be much more phased than the departure envisioned by the House Democrats in a letter sent Wednesday to the president.
Privately, however, top administration officials are in deliberations about how to proceed in Iraq, where hopes are fading that the elections on Jan. 30 for a national assembly to write a constitution will improve security.
The anti-war Democrats' letter was sent as more voices are being raised across the political spectrum in Washington discussing how the United States can begin to remove its 150,000 troops from a country where almost 1,400 Americans have been killed.
Woolsey and the other House Democrats, including Reps. Sam Farr of Carmel, Pete Stark of Fremont and Barbara Lee of Oakland, urged the administration to move swiftly.
"While it may be logistically difficult to immediately remove every American soldier, we urge you to take immediate action to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. This is the only way to truly support our troops,'' said the letter signed by Woolsey and her colleagues.
The House Democrats, all of them longtime critics of Bush's Iraq policies, said the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 had stirred anti-American sentiments among Iraqis and other Arabs, made Iraqis and foreigners in the country less safe and "intensified the rage of the extremist Muslim terrorists.''
"By removing our troops from the country, we will remove the main focus of the insurgents' rage,'' the letter added.
Woolsey spokeswoman Susannah Cernojevich said only logistical factors prevented Woolsey from calling on Bush to immediately withdraw all the force.
"If she had her way, they would leave now,'' she said of Woolsey.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview aired Wednesday on National Public Radio, said the administration hoped the elections would make Iraqi security forces more willing to fight, which would allow U.S. forces to begin to leave. However, Powell wouldn't mention any numbers or give any timetable.
"It's not possible right now to say that by the end of 2005, we'll be down to such and such a number," Powell said. "It really is dependent upon the situation."
The Woolsey letter came just a week after Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser under Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, said in a Washington speech that the continuing insurrection in Iraq meant it was time for a discussion of "whether we get out now.''
And the Associated Press reported that conservative Rep. Howard Coble, R- N.C., who supported the decision to invade Iraq, also said last week it was time to start pondering a phased withdrawal in light of the American casualties in Iraq.
"I got fed up with picking up the paper and reading 12 to 15 American soldiers killed," he was quoted as saying. "How many will we lose tomorrow?"
"I don't think anyone is seriously considering withdrawing at this juncture," Coble added. "The time has come for Iraqi people to assume more responsibility."
Coble's statement that Iraqis should assume more of the military burden reflects long-standing Bush administration policy aimed at training tens of thousands of Iraqis to serve in their country's army, national guard and police force. So far, the training hasn't achieved the desired results, and the Iraqi forces, who have suffered heavy losses in terrorist attacks, have a mixed record in standing up to the insurgents.
Back from a weekend trip to Jordan, where she met with women running for the Iraqi assembly, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, said she opposed starting an immediate withdrawal because of the side effects it would cause.
"This is a mess, but it's our mess,'' Tauscher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said of the situation in Iraq. "I'm not just for tossing a hot potato on Jan. 30 and leaving town.
"The last thing we can do is extricate ourselves and leave a failed state in the region ... that will come back to bite us in the short, medium and long term,'' added Tauscher, saying the country could fall apart in a civil war and become a haven for anti-U.S. terrorists.
Military analyst Michael O'Hanlon said the Democrats' call for an immediate withdrawal wouldn't influence the administration.
"The (complete) withdrawal option is a loser," O'Hanlon said. "Realistically speaking, you'll see a debate over a more gradual reduction strategy.''
He said such a nuanced strategy might include a public announcement after the new Iraqi government is in place that a large portion of the U.S. and coalition force would leave Iraq within a set period, perhaps 18 months. "That could show we aren't really occupiers," he said. "We'll start to hear more about such options.''
Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said talk of a withdrawal without completing the job in Iraq would be dangerous for U.S. forces and for Americans at home.
"It says we're defeated, and we expect to be defeated. If anyone expects this to be our last defeat, they would be mistaken,'' said May, saying a sudden withdrawal would embolden the al Qaeda terrorist network and its allies to again attack the United States.
"If we don't want to fight them in Iraq, we should decide what is the proper battlefield,'' he added.
In Baghdad on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said there was no timetable for withdrawal.
"I'm not going to speak for the president of the United States, but we represent the legislative body, and there will be no pulling back until the job is done,'' Frist said.
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