Warner Calls for Pullouts By Winter

By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 24, 2007

Sen. John W. Warner, one of the most influential Republican voices in Congress on national security, called on President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in time for Christmas as a new intelligence report concluded that political leaders in Baghdad are "unable to govern effectively."

Warner's declaration -- after the Virginia senator's recent four-day trip to the Middle East -- roiled the political environment ahead of a much-anticipated progress report to be delivered Sept. 11 by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Although Warner had already broken with Bush's strategy, this was the first time he endorsed pulling troops out by a specific date.

Warner's comments followed the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that provided a mixed assessment on Iraq seven months after Bush ordered more U.S. troops to the country. The report, produced by the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies, determined that "there have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq's security." But it predicted that the Iraqi government "will become more precarious" in the next six to 12 months, with little hope of reaching accommodation among political factions.

The NIE seemed to support an emerging consensus among politicians in Washington that the troop buildup has made a difference in quelling violence in some pockets of Iraq but that the political reconciliation needed for long-term resolution appears broken. Advocates of withdrawal and supporters of the war alike quickly picked out parts of the report to bolster their arguments on future U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Democratic and Republican leadership aides said last night that Warner's new stance, coupled with the intelligence assessment, may have stalled any political momentum Bush seemed to have been building in recent days. Although Warner did not embrace more sweeping Democratic legislation on troop withdrawal, his call to start a pullout makes it easier for wavering Republicans to break with the president.

At his Capitol Hill news conference, Warner, a former Navy secretary and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, threw Bush's own words back at him by noting that the president has said the U.S. commitment in Iraq must not be "open-ended." Warner said it is time for the president to come up with an "orderly and carefully planned withdrawal," suggesting that Bush "send a sharp and clear message" to the Iraqis by announcing a pullout plan by Sept. 15 -- one that would involve at least a symbolic fraction of the 160,000 troops coming home by the holidays.

"I can think of no clearer form of that than if the president were to announce on the 15th that, in consultation with our senior military commanders, he's decided to initiate the first step in a withdrawal of armed forces," Warner said. "I say to the president respectfully, 'Pick whatever number you wish.' . . . Say, 5,000 could begin to redeploy and be home to their families and loved ones no later than Christmas of this year. That's the first step."

The White House politely rejected Warner's advice, saying any decisions would wait until after Petraeus's presentation next month. "I don't think that the president feels any differently about setting a specific timetable for withdrawal," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "I just think it's important that we wait right now to hear from the commanders on the ground about the way ahead."

Throughout the congressional fight over the war, Warner has proved to be a key figure, especially in brokering deals across the aisle and bringing along moderate Republicans. In 2005, he crafted a bipartisan proposal making 2006 a "year of significant transition" in Iraq. After opposing Bush's troop buildup this year, he wrote the measure that laid out 18 political and security benchmarks for the Iraqi government and U.S. military to meet and set mid-September for a progress report on those goals.

Over the summer, he proposed legislation with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) calling on the president to develop a troop-redeployment plan by Oct. 16. But yesterday's withdrawal proposal puts him at the leading edge of a broader Republican revolt against the president's Iraq strategy.

Warner emphasized that he still does not want Congress to mandate timelines for withdrawal as some Democrats propose. Instead, he wants Bush to preempt such legislation. Warner suggested that after the first contingent is pulled out, the administration could assess the impact on the battlefield and on the Iraqi government's reconciliation efforts. Then the White House could decide the timing and size of the next withdrawal.

Although he traveled to Iraq with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) last week, Warner pointedly did not repeat Levin's call for the Iraqi parliament to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But he was unsparing in his criticism. "I really firmly believe the Iraqi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, have let our troops down," he said.

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