By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006
Frustrated by the stalemate over forming a government in Iraq, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) outlined a series of deadlines yesterday for withdrawing most U.S. forces by the end of the year and called for increased diplomatic pressure by the Bush administration to compel Iraqi leaders to take responsibility for the future of their country.
"We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do," Kerry wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Times. "Our valiant soldiers can't bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq's leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires."
The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee supported the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to use force to remove Saddam Hussein. Kerry has been a persistent critic of the administration's conduct of the war, saying repeated mistakes have made success more and more difficult to achieve. He said yesterday it is unconscionable for U.S. soldiers to put their lives at risk when Iraqi politicians show no commitment to establishing a working government.
In calling for strict deadlines for drawing down forces, Kerry joins several other Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) and Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), in challenging Bush's contention that timetables will only strengthen the opposition and lead to possible defeat for the U.S. mission.
Kerry found minimal support from Democratic colleagues for his latest proposal. Among those who endorsed the plan were Feingold and former senator Gary Hart (Colo.). Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), who has been a leading Democratic voice on Iraq policy, said in a statement that Kerry's views were consistent with the Democrats' belief that 2006 should be a year of significant transition in Iraq; Reed did not endorse the deadline schedule.
Kerry's proposals drew no reaction from the White House or the Republican National Committee, which one GOP official called a sign that they do not regard Kerry as someone likely to influence others in his party on the central foreign policy issue of the day.
In an interview, Kerry said he was furious over the lack of progress in Iraq. He charged the administration with half-hearted diplomatic efforts and dismissed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's surprise 24-hour visit there this week as "not serious diplomacy."
He praised U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's efforts but said the administration's failure to give him more support represents diplomatic negligence. "It's almost as if this administration isn't serious about it," Kerry said.
To break the stalemate, he called on the administration to convene a summit of Iraqi leaders and others on neutral ground with the goal of reaching agreement on a government that includes dismantling Iraqi militias and a reconstruction plan.
Kerry said the administration should set May 15 as the deadline for forming a government. If the Iraqis miss the deadline, he said, the United States should immediately begin withdrawing forces.
"If Iraqis aren't willing to build a unity government in the five months since the [December] election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war will only get worse and we will have no choice anyway but to leave," Kerry said.
Even if the Iraqis succeed in putting together a new government, he said, the administration should establish a timeline for withdrawing all combat forces by the end of the year, leaving only those units needed to train an Iraqi security force capable of stabilizing the country. A Kerry adviser said the removal of combat forces would leave about 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground.
In another development yesterday, four Republican House members joined with 79 Democrats in calling for a full-scale debate on Bush's Iraq strategy.
The four, according to Bloomberg News, are Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrist (Md.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Walter B. Jones Jr. (N.C.) and Ron Paul (Tex.). Gilchrist said the message to Iraqi leaders is: "You have got to help yourself."