WASHINGTON - The United States should start to withdraw militarily and politically from Iraq and aim to pull out all troops as early as possible next year, Sen. Edward Kennedy said on Thursday.
After Sunday's Iraqi elections, Kennedy said President Bush should state he intends to negotiate a timetable with the new Iraqi government to draw down U.S. forces.
The current course is only making the crisis worse.
At least 12,000 U.S. troops should leave at once, Kennedy said, "to send a stronger signal about our intentions to ease the pervasive sense of occupation."
The Massachusetts Democrat, who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, became the first senator to lay out a plan for Bush to start withdrawing troops a day after the Pentagon warned lawmakers that strikes by insurgents may increase after Sunday's elections.
Besides ending its military presence, Kennedy said the United States must stop making political decisions in Iraq and turn over full authority to the United Nations to help Baghdad set up a new government.
He said an international meeting led by the United Nations and Iraq should be convened immediately in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East to start that process.
"We now have no choice but to make the best we can of the disaster we have created in Iraq," Kennedy in a speech to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "The current course is only making the crisis worse."
He said the indefinite presence of U.S. troops is "fanning the flames of conflict" in what has become "a war against the U.S. occupation."
The Republican National Committee criticized the Senate's leading liberal for delivering "such an overtly pessimistic message only days before the Iraqi election."
"Kennedy's partisan political attack stands in stark contrast to President Bush's vision of spreading freedom around the world," RNC spokesman Brian Jones said.
Kennedy emphasized that Bush must also make it clear that the United States does not intend to have a long-term presence, and announce that it will dramatically reduces its embassy in Baghdad, which is the largest in the world.
While many in the Republican-led Senate have expressed dismay as the death toll of U.S. troops stands at more than 1,400, Kennedy is the first to lay out a plan for a troop withdrawal, his office said.
In the Republican-led House of Representatives, 24 Democrats this week introduced a resolution calling on Bush to begin an immediate pullout.
The administration has refused to offer a timetable for pulling troops, and Bush on Wednesday said the United States would remain until the new government can defend itself.
Democrats like Kennedy have been the strongest critics of the war but many Republicans are also concerned, in part because Iraq is costing more than $1 billion a week and has put a great strain on America's military and its budget.
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