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US Senate Democrats Seek Change in Course of Iraq War

U.S. Senate Democratic leaders are planning to hold votes next week on a series of measures aimed at changing the course of the Iraq war. Congressional Democrats are rejecting President Bush's plan for a gradual troop pullback from Iraq as too little too late. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Speaking at a military base not far from Washington, D.C. Friday, President Bush repeated his appeal to U.S. lawmakers made in his address to the nation a day earlier to embrace the recommendations of the top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"I call upon the United States Congress to listen very carefully to what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker reported, and support the troop levels that these two men think are necessary to achieve our objective," said Mr. Bush.

The president says military and political progress has been made in Iraq, allowing for the 30,000 additional troops deployed in the country earlier this year to come home by next July. That would leave 130,000 troops in the country.

Republican congressional leaders are praising the decision. Among the first to do so was Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who spoke on the Senate floor shortly after General Petreaus delivered his report to Congress earlier in the week:

"The early successes of the Petraeus plan gives America hope that we can bring about ample stability in Iraq, and it also gives us real hope that we can start to bring our troops back, not in retreat, but with full honor and full pride," he said.

But congressional Democrats say the plan is nothing new, arguing that the surge of forces had a time limit, because of the risk of overstretching the military.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also spoke shortly after Petraeus' testimony.

"His plan is merely more of the same: to keep at least 130,000 troops, American troops, in the midst of an intractable civil war," said Senator Reid. "This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to the American people."

Democratic leaders say they will continue to press for a change of course in the war, which public opinion polls show continues to be unpopular among the American people.

But Senate Democrats, with their narrow majority in the chamber, acknowledge there is not enough support in the Senate for passage of a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

They need the support of 60 senators to overcome any Republican attempts to block anti-war legislation.

So Democratic leaders are focusing on more modest measures that would attract the support of Republican moderates, many of whom are facing tough reelection bids next year because of the unpopularity of the war.

One such measure, sponsored by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, would limit the mission of U.S. troops to training Iraqi forces, fighting terrorism and securing Iraq's borders.

Another measure, introduced by Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, would ensure troops returning from Iraq are allowed to stay at their home bases at least the same amount of time of their last deployment before returning to the battlefield.

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the Webb proposal could further reduce troop levels in Iraq, although he could not say by how much.

"What limits it puts on deployments, I am not specifically aware of, but I do think it will have an impact," he noted.

Reed, who delivered his party's response to the president's address Thursday night, believes the Webb proposal will have overwhelming support.

But Reed acknowledges that as Democrats seek support from moderate Republicans for modest measures aimed at altering the course of the war, they are not alienating members of their own party's liberal base. These Democratic activists are frustrated that their party's majority in Congress has not been able to affect war policy and are demanding more significant and immediate troop withdrawals.

"It is a serious challenge, because I think, the extent you are able to attract support from the Republican side, there might be Democrats who say, that is going too far for their position," added Senator Reed. "That is the reality we have to work with, we will."

Two of the candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination for president, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, have called a more accelerated troop pullout.

The Senate debate on Iraq will take place as lawmakers consider a defense policy bill next week.