Saying that the future of the nation and the U.S. military are at risk, an influential Democratic congressman known for his pro-defense stands called today for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who served 37 years in the Marine Corps, said he was introducing a bill today to start an "immediate redeployment" of U.S. troops out of Iraq, to be completed within six months. He also called for the creation of a "quick-reaction force" in the region to deal with emergencies.
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," Murtha, 73, said in a Capitol Hill news conference. "It's a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."
The proposal promptly came under fire from Republicans, who called it defeatist.
Murtha, the top Democrat on the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, supported U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and voted for an October 2002 joint resolution that authorized President Bush to take military action in Iraq to address a threat from weapons of mass destruction.
But he said the discovery that deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein possessed no stockpiles of such illegal weapons showed that "the main reason for going to war has been discredited." And now, he said, U.S. forces in Iraq have become a magnet for terrorism.
"The American public is way ahead of the members of Congress," Murtha said. "The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq. But it's time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region."
He cited cuts in defense budgets and soaring deficits at a time when the Army needs to be rebuilt. He also said he came away from a recent trip to Iraq dismayed by continuing shortcomings in oil production, reconstruction efforts, employment and overall security.
House Republicans voiced strong opposition to the proposed withdrawal. "Democrats have made a mistake," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "I think they've underestimated the toughness of the American people and the understanding that if we don't change the world, the world is going to change us."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said of the Democrats: "They want us to retreat. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world."
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee that Murtha also sits on, said in a statement: "Calling for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq is reprehensible and irresponsible. It shows the Democratic Party has chosen a policy of retreat and defeatism which will only encourage the terrorists and threaten the stability of Iraq."
President Bush has adamantly rejected setting any timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, saying this would only help the insurgents. But Congress has shown signs of growing unease with Bush's Iraq policy. On Tuesday, the Senate pressed for greater steps toward troop withdrawals, voting 79 to 19 to approve a resolution designating next year as "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty . . . thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment" of U.S. forces from Iraq.
During his news conference, Murtha at times appeared to choke back tears as he described visits to badly wounded service members in hospital wards. One of them, he said, was blinded and lost both hands dismantling unexploded U.S. bomblets in Iraq but was denied a Purple Heart. Murtha said he intervened to get the man the decoration awarded to those who have been wounded or killed in combat.
Murtha, a Vietnam War veteran who retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel in 1990, said he had concluded that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is "impeding" that country's progress toward self-sufficiency.
"Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency," he said. "I believe with a U.S. troop redeployment, the Iraqi security forces will be incentivized to take control."
Murtha added: "I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis. I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy."
The redeployment should be "consistent with the safety of U.S. forces," and the aim should be to "diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq," he said. "Our military's done everything that has been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It's time to bring the troops home."
In response to questions, Murtha said that "six months would be a reasonable time to get them out of there."
Asked about Republican criticism that Democrats are promoting a "cut-and-run" strategy, Murtha said "this war has been so mishandled from the very start" and that "80 percent of the Iraqis want us out of there."
U.S. troops "don't deserve to continue to suffer," he said. "We're the targets. We're uniting the enemy against us. And there's terrorism all over the world that there wasn't before we went into Iraq."
Murtha said that "lashing out at critics doesn't help a bit. You've got to change the policy."
But he also had some sharp criticism for the Bush administration, which he compared unfavorably to the government of Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush. The former president "might not like the criticism and constructive suggestion, but he listened to what we had to say," Murtha said. By contrast, he said, "this outfit doesn't want to hear any suggestions. It's frustrating. And the troops are paying the price for it."
Murtha said his call for an immediate troop withdrawal is not a position of the House Democratic caucus. "This is my own position, my own conclusion that I have reached," he said.