By Anne E. Kornblut and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 27, 2009
President Obama sought yesterday to quell growing complaints from members of Congress about his plans for drawing down troops in Iraq, inviting lawmakers to a White House meeting on the eve of a North Carolina speech in which he is expected to announce that he will pull out many combat troops by August of 2010.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) complained that the level of troops -- 50,000 -- who would remain in Iraq is too high, other senior Democrats voiced similar concerns. Not one member of the Democratic leadership, except for Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), defended the new Obama plan, which will take three months longer than he promised and still leave a significant force structure on the ground.
White House officials said Obama had reached his decision after consulting with military commanders and would unveil the details in his address today during a trip to Camp Lejeune, N.C. Yet even before making the plan official, Obama faced stiff resistance from members of his party as well as from some Republicans who said the idea of a withdrawal would not have been possible without the additional troops -- or "surge" -- that he opposed.
Most lawmakers left the White House quickly after the event. Aides later said that Democrats seemed no more pleased during the meeting than before. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a positive statement, saying he "supports the plan to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq as briefed by Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates at the White House this afternoon."
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) registered his complaints about the level of troops that will remain in Iraq even after 2010.
"I'm happy to listen to the secretary of defense and the president, but when they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated," Reid said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the pullout "has to be done responsibly, we all agree. But 50,000 is more than I would have thought, and we await the justification."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) echoed his worries, saying: "I do think we have to look carefully at the numbers that are there and do it as quickly as we can." Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) issued a statement saying he is "concerned" about the level of troops that would remain in Iraq.
During his daily briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama is comfortable with his plan, which he will formally announce shortly before noon. The president asked his national security team "to put together a plan that they and he believed would accomplish the goal of removing our combat forces from Iraq in the most responsible way," Gibbs said. "The president will lay out exactly what that plan is. And I think tomorrow you'll see a president and the national security leadership comfortable with the recommendations that have been made and accepted by the commander in chief."
Hours before the president met with congressional leaders, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also defended the plan, saying that the residual forces would have a targeted mission and that "the thinking all along had been that any force left after we stopped combat operations would be focused on the counterterrorism mission, on training, advising, assistance."
"So it's a very different mission than we have now," Gates said. Referring to the existing status-of-forces agreement, Gates added: "Whatever number the president approves as of the date he approves is a way station, because if there is no new agreement, under the SOFA, that number has to be zero at the end of 2011."
After the meeting, Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) responded, saying: "The president's objective to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq is one that we should pray for, plan for, and work toward. However, I remain concerned that the security situation in Iraq is fragile, and we should work to mitigate any risks to our troops and their mission."
He continued: "I specifically raised these points with the president this evening, and he assured me that he will revisit his plan if the situation on the ground deteriorates and violence increases."
Obama's quick trip will be his first to North Carolina since his election, which he won with a boost from the traditionally Republican state. He will speak to troops at Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast with a population of about 150,000 people. According to military officials at the base, Obama will visit Goettge Memorial Field House and will meet with and address preselected service members.
Of the Democratic congressional leaders, only Durbin has defended the plan, saying that it is not easy to meet Obama's campaign promise of a nearly complete withdrawal in such a short time frame without posing a risk to the soldiers that are left behind to help with embassy security and further training of Iraqi security forces. "I think what the administration is trying to do is strike that balance," Durbin said. While Durbin is generally the most anti war member of the leadership, he also is Obama's closest ally on Capitol Hill.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement declaring that he is not concerned about the eventual U.S. departure. "We have faith in our armed forces and our security services, to protect the country and consolidate security and stability," he said. "We have no worries for Iraq if American troops pull out. Thank God we have succeeded in ridding ourselves of sectarianism and racism."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.