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Lawmaker Returns Home, a Hawk Turned War Foe
Published on Tuesday, November 22, 2005 by the New York Times
Lawmaker Returns Home, a Hawk Turned War Foe
by David S. Cloud
 

JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania - Representative John P. Murtha, the hawkish Democrat who spent his political career as a staunch Pentagon supporter, came home Monday as something entirely different: an antiwar symbol.

His call last week for an American troop withdrawal from Iraq within the next six months took aback many of his own constituents and made the plainspoken former Marine colonel's homecoming on Monday a moment for re-evaluation - of the congressman, as well as of the Bush administration's strategy for Iraq.

"It's really surprising that you would see Mr. Murtha speaking out and saying that it's time to get out, and if he's saying it then it's probably so," said Becky Wicks, a Johnstown resident who said she and her family had supported President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

As recently as last year, Mr. Murtha was warning that "premature withdrawal" of American troops could lead to a civil war in Iraq and leave American foreign policy in "disarray," the exact critique Republicans lodge against him now.

The evolution of his views, he said, has been driven both by the pain of frequent visits to see injured soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center outside Washington and by his steady disillusionment with the Bush administration's handling of the war. But in some ways he is unsuited temperamentally to the role he has assumed.

"I just came to the conclusion finally that I had to speak out," he told reporters on Monday. "I had to focus this administration on an exit strategy."

"I'm hopeful I don't go too far," he said, adding that he "felt bad" last week after bringing up Vice President Dick Cheney's "five deferments" in the Vietnam era.

Mr. Cheney, in a speech on Monday in Washington in which he defended the administration's handling of the war, called Mr. Murtha "a good man, a marine, a patriot," and said Mr. Murtha was "taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."

An insider most comfortable in the backrooms of Congress, Mr. Murtha said his goal was only to force a dialogue with President Bush on the need to draw down American forces - not lead his party's antiwar wing. Many fellow Democrats are uneasy about his call for an immediate withdrawal, fearing it will give Republicans a chance to brand them as weak on national security.

Not everyone in Johnstown is comfortable with Mr. Murtha's new role.

At a speech Monday morning to local executives and elected officials, Mr. Murtha received three standing ovations. The talk focused almost entirely on all the federal aid Mr. Murtha has been able to deliver to his district from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

But when he spoke briefly about Iraq, the audience seemed unsure about how to react to their congressman's public break with the Bush administration. When Mr. Murtha invited questions after his remarks, no one in the audience of several hundred came forward.

"We're all kind of perplexed," said Robert A. Gleason Jr., an insurance executive and chairman of the local Republican Committee, who said he had put aside party loyalties and voted for Mr. Murtha in the past.

The first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, in 1974, Mr. Murtha rose to become the top Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, a post he has used to look after average soldiers' needs. He keeps a running count of the number of his constituents killed in Iraq: now 13.

Since shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, he has frequently visited wounded troops at Walter Reed, an experience that he said had gradually convinced him that the American troop presence was exacerbating the violence by giving insurgents more targets to attack.

In speeches over the last week, he has repeatedly referred to a constituent, Pfc. Salvatore Ross Jr., a combat engineer from Dunbar, Pa., who was badly wounded while landmines he was clearing near Baghdad went off. The explosion blinded him in both eyes and tore off his leg below the knee, Private Ross said in an interview. He spent more than a month in a coma at Walter Reed and later underwent more than a dozen surgeries.

Mr. Murtha visited him twice in the hospital and later arranged a ceremony in Private Ross's hometown, where he received a Purple Heart. He also arranged for Walter Reed to pick up many of his medical bills for special treatment at a private hospital, Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

Only a year ago, though, Mr. Murtha wrote in the epilogue to the paperback edition of a biography he wrote with a former aide that "an untimely exit could rapidly devolve into a civil war, which would leave America's foreign policy in disarray as countries question not only America's judgment but also its perseverance."

But in several trips to Iraq in the last year, he said that he became convinced that the military was not making progress at defeating the insurgency. Yet, he said, the Bush administration ignored his efforts to open private discussions on devising a bipartisan course change.

A letter on Iraq that Mr. Murtha said he sent to Mr. Bush last year did not get a reply until five months later, and then from a underling at the Pentagon, he complained.

"I deserve more respect than that," he said.

Mr. Murtha said he began discussing his growing unease with the military presence in Iraq with longtime advisers, including two retired generals and a former secretary of the Army, whom he would not identify. They urged him not to call publicly for a withdrawal, he said, but as his doubts about the war grew, "they finally came around."

Even Mr. Gleason, the local Republican chairman, predicted that Mr. Murtha's stance would cause him no significant political problems in next November's elections.

Though most voters lean Democratic in this blue-collar region, they are generally conservative. President Bush only lost the district by 8,000 votes in 2004.

Even so, no Republican has yet announced a run against Mr. Murtha, although that may speak as much to Republican concerns over the political climate and the 2006 election as it does about Mr. Murtha's popularity in his district.

His break with the Bush administration could still entice a candidate into the race. But years of delivering federal money from his Appropriations Committee seat has made him all but invulnerable, Mr. Gleason conceded.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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