Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) yesterday called for the withdrawal of 20,000 troops from Iraq by year's end as the first step in a proposal that would significantly reduce U.S. military forces in the region over the next 15 months.
Kerry offered a middle ground between those advocating an immediate drawdown of the more than 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and the Bush administration, which has declined to set a timetable for a decreased U.S. military presence.
"The way forward in Iraq is not to pull out precipitously or merely promise to stay 'as long as it takes,' " Kerry said during an address at Georgetown University. "We must instead simultaneously pursue both a political settlement and the withdrawal of American combat forces."
Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, is the highest-profile figure in either party to back a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq. Kerry's decision to announce his proposal comes amid a crop of national opinion polls showing the war growing increasingly unpopular among Democrats, independents and even Republicans.
Kerry is not the first Democratic senator to call for a phased pullout. In mid-August, Russell Feingold (Wis.) set December 2006 as the end date for a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq. Both Kerry and Feingold are weighing presidential runs in 2008.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, recently suggested developing a timeline for a contingent withdrawal plan designed to give Iraqis more incentive to take control of their country. His counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), has similarly suggested bringing U.S. troops home as Iraqi forces build.
Under Kerry's plan, the first wave of U.S soldiers would leave after Iraq's planned Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, with the "bulk of American combat forces" withdrawn by the end of 2006.
Bush administration officials and military commanders have strongly resisted the idea of setting any timetable, in part because the insurgency has remained active and large swaths of Iraq remain insecure. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said any withdrawal will be "conditions-based," relying on the success of the Iraqi government, the status of the insurgency, and the strength of the Iraqi security forces.
Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, said yesterday that a U.S. withdrawal now would be catastrophic because his nation's security forces are not ready. Barzani, who met with President Bush on Tuesday, said an early withdrawal would be a "major defeat" for the United States and a victory for terrorists.
"If the war does not end and if there's any withdrawal from this, this would give a big opportunity for the terrorists and it will bring calamities in the end," Barzani told Washington Post reporters and editors. "If the American troops decide to withdraw, the situation will deteriorate and we will have more of the external threats to the situation in Iraq. And any withdrawal right now might lead to a civil war in Iraq as well."
Kerry portrayed his proposed pullout of forces as the best remedy for the ongoing violence, not as a recognition that the insurgency cannot be defeated. Citing such voices as former Nixon administration defense secretary Melvin R. Laird, he argued that "our military presence in vast and visible numbers has become part of the problem, not the solution."
As part of his call for a political solution to the Iraq conflict, Kerry proposed a conference of nations led by the United States, Britain, Turkey, Russia and other NATO allies to forge a compromise between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions in Iraq. He also called on Bush to appoint an envoy to help "maximize our diplomacy in Iraq and the region."
In the Senate, Kerry supported the initial use of force resolution in October 2002 but opposed the $87 billion Bush requested to fund operations there roughly one year later.
Bush scored Kerry on this seeming contradiction during the 2004 campaign, lampooning the senator's statement that he had actually voted for the $87 billion funding request before voting against it, an attack analysts and polling data showed was among the most effective of the campaign.
Kerry expressed regret yesterday about his vote to authorize the war, telling the audience: "I understand that as much as we might wish it, we can't rewind the tape of history." He added that he accepted responsibility for his vote but that at that time, he was not aware of the "full measure of the Bush administration's duplicity and incompetence."
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt dismissed Kerry's speech, saying he is "either willing to endanger American forces on the ground, or he really believes that ignoring the presence of terrorists is the best policy for the safety of America."