Hawkish Democrat Joins Call For Pullout

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 18, 2005

The top House Democrat on military spending matters stunned colleagues yesterday by calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, while many congressional Democrats reacted defiantly to President Bush's latest attack on his critics.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said many of those troops are demoralized and poorly equipped and, after more than two years of war, are impeding Iraq's progress toward stability and self-governance.

"Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency," Murtha said in a Capitol news conference that left him in tears. Islamic insurgents "are united against U.S. forces, and we have become a catalyst for violence," he said. ". . . It's time to bring them home."

Murtha's action, coupled with stinging rhetoric from the White House, was the catalyst for a remarkable outpouring of rage on Capitol Hill about Iraqi war policy, an issue that for months was relatively dormant but now is dominating congressional debate.

In sometimes vitriolic terms, Republican leaders accused Democrats of siding with terrorists, and Democrats countered that Bush deceived the nation in starting a war that he has no strategy for ending. The bitter exchanges came as polls show Americans are increasingly eager to have Iraqis assume control so U.S. troops can come home.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declared: "Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They would prefer that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans. To add insult to injury, this is done while the president is on foreign soil."

A few dozen other House Democrats have called for withdrawing from Iraq as soon as possible. But most are liberals who voted against going to war, and they have drawn modest attention. Murtha is a hawkish ex-Marine who voted for the war and has close ties to the military.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues at a closed meeting yesterday morning that she, too, would advocate an immediate troop withdrawal, according to several who attended. But by day's end, Pelosi -- a liberal who has sharply criticized Bush's handling of the war -- chose merely to praise Murtha and say he deserved to have "his day."

The Senate voted on Tuesday to press the administration for concrete steps toward troop withdrawals, designating 2006 as "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty." But the Senate rejected a Democratic proposal to require the administration to project dates for a phased withdrawal of troops if conditions permitted.

Bush, traveling in South Korea, told reporters he agrees with Vice President Cheney's view that politicians who criticize the administration's handling of prewar intelligence are engaging in "dishonest and reprehensible" behavior. South Korea's Defense Ministry said today that it plans to bring home about one-third of its 3,200 troops from Iraq next year.

"I expect there to be criticism," Bush said. "But when Democrats say that I deliberately misled the Congress and the people, that's irresponsible. They looked at the same intelligence I did, and they voted -- many of them voted -- to support the decision I made. . . . So I agree with the vice president."

Murtha, asked about the comments, replied sarcastically: "I like guys who got five deferments and [have] never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done." Cheney did not serve in the military, and Bush was an Air National Guardsman who did not leave the United States during the Vietnam War.

Murtha's Democratic colleagues reacted warily to his remarks, while Republicans pounced. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), head of the House Democrats' campaign effort, said, "Jack Murtha went out and spoke for Jack Murtha." As for Iraq policy, Emanuel added: "At the right time, we will have a position."

The hot rhetoric reflects a fracturing of public and congressional attitudes toward the war, which may lead to more emphatic calls for an exit strategy after lawmakers mingle with constituents during a two-week recess slated to start Monday.

Several Democrats disputed Bush's remarks, saying that Congress was not shown all the prewar intelligence the White House had collected regarding Iraq's potential weapons of mass destruction, and that administration officials gave greater weight to hints that Saddam Hussein had such weapons than to signals that he did not.

Bush and Cheney "have begun a new campaign of distortion and manipulation," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told reporters. "Because of the polls showing that Americans have lost trust in the president and believe he manipulated intelligence before the war, the president and vice president have abandoned any pretense of leading this country and have gone back on the campaign trail." The two men could not find weapons of mass destruction, Kennedy said, and "they can't find the truth, either."

Such comments are a disservice to U.S. troops, said some GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. "Now the attempt is to undermine the people standing abroad by repeatedly calling [Bush] a liar," Stevens said.

At a House Republican news conference responding to Murtha, Rep. Geoff Davis (Ky.) accused Democrats of making politically motivated "shameful statements."

Democrats remain far from united on the war, despite continuing efforts by House and Senate leaders to find common ground. In October 2002, 81 Democrats in the House and 29 Democrats in the Senate voted in favor of going to war.

The party's liberal base is clamoring for the United States to leave Iraq as soon as possible. But many Democratic foreign policy experts contend that deadlines and timetables might have disastrous consequences for the region.

"There's a tendency to want to say 'Cut your losses,' " said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a 2004 presidential candidate who has consulted extensively with House Democrats on Iraq. "Until we reach the point where engagement there cannot advance us, you have to still work the problem."

A Republican leader -- House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (Calif.) -- said that if the United States does not prevail in Iraq, it will invite attacks akin to those of Sept. 11, 2001. "Four years have expired without a second attack on our homeland because we've aggressively projected America's fighting forces in the theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said.

A top Democrat -- Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) -- said in a floor speech that Bush and Cheney have "shamelessly decided to play politics" over Iraq. "We need a commander in chief, not a campaigner in chief," Reid said. "We need leadership from the White House, not more whitewashing of the very serious issues confronting us in Iraq."

Staff writers Peter Baker in South Korea and Shailagh Murray and Dana Milbank in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company