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US Congressional Democrats Call for Troop Reductions in Iraq


Members of the new Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress are calling for American troop reductions in Iraq, amid reports that President Bush is preparing to announce an overhaul of his Iraq policy that could include a short-term surge of thousands of troops into the country. Democrats are planning a series of hearings into the conduct of the war in an effort to hold the administration accountable for a conflict that is unpopular with the American people. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Democrats Thursday took control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, reminding Republicans that their victory in last November's election was due in large part to the American people's dissatisfaction with the course of the Iraq war.

Among them was the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi of California:

"The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end," said Nancy Pelosi.

With President Bush expected to announce a new Iraq strategy as early as next week, Pelosi urged him to take a multifaceted approach:

"It is the responsibility of the president to articulate a new plan for Iraq that makes it clear to the Iraqis that they must defend their own streets and their own security, a plan that promotes stability in the region and a plan that allows us to responsibly redeploy our troops," she said.

News reports say President Bush may call for a temporary increase of some 20,000 troops.

Such a proposal concerns many Democrats, including Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who questions whether more American soldiers can be effective:

"We are talking about the lives of American soldiers, whether we will send 20 or 30,000 more American soldiers into that field of combat, whether that can possibly make a difference," said Dick Durbin. "I hope to God that the president reconsiders that. I am afraid that in many instances we are only sending targets, and not troops."

But the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, told VOA he would consider such a short-term increase in troops if it leads to an overall reduction in troop strength.

"If it is part of a commitment to reduce troops from the current level, beginning at a certain point, such as four to six months, and if in addition to that, it would not begin until and unless certain milestones of political settlement have actually been reached, where the Iraqis are not only committed to a political settlement - because that is the key to everything - but actually reached certain milestones along the road, at that point, it is worth considering a surge," said Carl Levin. "But that is a very, very narrow band of conditions."

Republicans, meanwhile, appear divided over whether there should be an increase in U.S. troops. Senator John McCain of Arizona, for example, supports the idea, but Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, has called for a troop withdrawal from Iraq.

While some Democrats say they will fight any proposal to send more troops to Iraq, Democratic leaders have signaled that they will not use their most powerful tool to influence the war - budgetary authority to restrict spending.

Senator Levin says he opposes cutting funding for the war.

"I don't think we ought to do that," he said. "I have not supported that because of the message it would send to the troops, which is the wrong message. We support our troops."

Senator Levin and other top Democrats hope to influence the course of events through congressional hearings into the planning and the conduct of the war. Levin's Armed Services Committee, and its counterpart in the House, are to hold their first hearings into the war next week.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an outspoken Bush administration critic, also plans oversight hearings into the president's handling of the Iraq war as well as the war on terror.

"When a White House acts as if it alone knows best, destroying the accountability of checks and balances, it makes bad decisions, but even worse, it also risks losing the people's trust," said senator Leahy. "Ultimately, a democracy of 300 million people must have the people's trust if they are going to govern. These are precisely the penalties that this administration has amassed through its unilateralism, in policies ranging from Iraq, to torture, to domestic surveillance."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called for a bipartisan tone in the congressional discussions on Iraq policy.

"It is my hope and my challenge to this body that the debate will be based on what is best for the future of our nation and for Iraq, not what is best for the Republican or Democratic Party," said Senator McConnell.

In the end, majority Democrats may not have much influence over the course of the war, despite their planned oversight hearings and debate. President Bush, as commander in chief, will continue to set the policy in Iraq over the course of his last two years in office.

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