A veteran US congressman who set off a firestorm in November by calling for a quick American withdrawal from Iraq is now predicting "the vast majority" of US troops will leave the country by year's end, or maybe even sooner.
John Murtha, the top Democrat of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, said late Friday that President George W. Bush would be forced to accept an Iraq pullout plan because inaction will likely result in Republicans losing control of Congress in the November midterm elections.
"I think the vast majority will be out by the end of the year and Im hopeful it will be sooner than that," he told CBS's "60 Minutes" program, according to excerpts of the interview released by the network.
Although both the Senate and the House of Representatives remain firmly in Republican hands, Murtha said he believed Congress will pass a plan calling for pullout of US troops from Iraq because of rising voter dissatisfaction with the current course.
"You're going to see a plan for withdrawal," Murtha insisted, adding that he believed the president will be forced to accede to it -- or risk losing control of Congress.
"I think the political people who give advice will say to him, 'You don't want a Democratic Congress. You want to keep a Republican majority, and the only way you're going to keep it is by reducing substantially the troops in Iraq,'" Murtha said.
More than 140,000 US soldiers are currently deployed in Iraq.
The first veteran of the Vietnam War elected to Congress triggered what amounted to a political earthquake last November, when he publicly called for US withdrawal from Iraq in six months, insisting the war was grounded in "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."
The appeal marked the first time a mainstream US politician, who had voted to authorize the 2003 invasion, referred to the Iraq war as a lost cause.
The White House initially blasted the congressman's appeal as tantamount to "surrender" but later toned down its attacks, saying the president just had an honest policy disagreement with him.
Still, in a move reminiscent of 2004, the conservative Cybercast News Service released Friday the results of its "investigation" of Murtha's war record, in which it questioned his right to wear two Purple Heart medals.
The report quotes three people claiming to know Murtha well as saying the congressman did not deserve these honors, and one of them, Vietnam veteran Don Bailey, even called Murtha "a phony and a liar."
A similar conservative group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, questioned Democrat John Kerry's war record during the 2004 presidential election campaign.
Recent opinion polls, however, give credence to Murtha's prediction that the coming congressional election may turn on Iraq.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey conducted January 6-8 indicated that 85 percent of Americans believe that Iraq will be either "extremely important" or "very important" in the November contest, in which all 435 House and a third of Senate seats will be up for grabs.
The public is largely split on a future course, with 49 percent saying the administration should come up with a withdrawal timetable regardless of the situation on the ground and 47 advocating soldiering on.
But another Gallup poll unveiled Friday showed that Congress's overall job approval rating had plunged to below 30 percent, a bad omen for incumbents -- and the party in control of the legislature.
Murtha also disputed Bush's claim that Iraq was a central front in the war on terror, accusing the president of "trying to fight this war with rhetoric."
"Iraq is not where the center of terrorism is," the congressman insisted. "We're inciting terrorism there ... We're destabilizing the area by being over there because we're the targets."
© Copyright 2006 AFP