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Republican Senator Criticizes US Policy on Middle East


A key Senate Republican is calling on the Bush administration to work for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict between Israeli forces and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militants.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is calling on President Bush to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East. He suggested former secretaries of state Colin Powell and James Baker would be good candidates for the post.

In a speech on the Senate floor Monday, Hagel urged the Bush administration to do something it has so far refused: engage Syria and Iran, the main sponsors of Hezbollah. "Ultimately, the United States will need to engage Iran and Syria with an agenda open to all areas of agreement and disagreement. For this dialogue to have any meaning or possible lasting relevance, it should encompass the full agenda of issues," he said.

Hagel warned that close U.S. ties with Israel must not come at the expense of relations with the Arab and Muslim world. "The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But, it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice. Achieving a lasting resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is as much in Israel's interest as any other country in the world," he said.

The Bush administration has been a staunch supporter of Israel's ongoing military operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But Hagel said military action alone will not destroy Hezbollah, and that the pursuit of tactical military victories at the expense of the core strategic objective of Arab-Israeli peace is a hollow victory. He urged the United States to reengage Middle East and international partners to find a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hagel, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, also offered comments about the U.S. challenges in Iraq.

"America is bogged down in Iraq, and this is limiting our diplomatic and military options. The longer American remains in Iraq in its current capacity, the deeper the damage to our force structure, particularly the U.S. Army," he said.

His comments came as top congressional Democrats urged President Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq this year. In an effort to portray a united front ahead of November congressional elections, Democrats sent the president a letter saying the open-ended commitment in Iraq should not be sustained. The letter called for withdrawing an unspecified number of troops this year, but did not include a deadline for completing the withdrawal.

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, visited Iraq in early July, and offered his assessment of U.S. policy there in a speech in Washington Monday night. "The United States still lacks a coherent and effective strategy. The administration's sloganeering is wearing thin. Stay the course is difficult when a critical component, robust attention to the non-military demands of Iraq is lacking, and the presence of American forces is both difficult to sustain at present levels and invites growing concern within the United States and within Iraq," he said.

Democrats have been divided over whether to demand a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq and were unable to reach a consensus during a debate over the issue in June. Republicans were quick to criticize Democrats for supporting "cut and run" policies, and sought to portray them as in disarray over the war.

Democrats argue they are on the side of most Americans, who, according to public opinion polls, are not happy with President Bush's handling of Iraq.

Although the Pentagon had hoped to begin withdrawing troops by the end of the year, an upsurge in sectarian violence around Baghdad has prompted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to announce plans to send as many as 5,000 additional troops to the Iraqi capital and extend the tours of 3,500 troops who were scheduled to come home.

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