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Congress Debates Temporary US Troop Surge in Iraq

In advance of President Bush's scheduled speech Wednesday on Iraq strategy, lawmakers are speaking out for and against any possible surge of U.S. troops into Iraq. As VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the latest comments come as Democrats controlling Congress take additional steps to move Iraq to the top of their agenda on Capitol Hill, along with domestic issues.

In a recent meeting with key committee chairmen, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that Iraq will be a focus of activity for weeks and months to come, despite the Democrats' early domestic-focused agenda.

Senior Bush administration officials are scheduled to appear at four hearings this week, in the House foreign relations Committee and its Senate counterpart, as well as the Armed Services panels in both chambers.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are among the key witnesses, with additional hearings scheduled for next week.

On Monday, Senator Barack Obama told reporters no amount of U.S. forces can be effective without new steps toward political reconciliation by Iraq's government with religious and ethnic groups. "I don't think that 15,000 or 20,000 more troops is going to make a difference in Iraq and in Baghdad. What will make a difference is political accommodation between the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds," he said.

Reports attributed to administration officials say the president may order as many as 20-thousand additional troops to Iraq, a temporary surge to help Iraqi forces secure Baghdad, and recommend political, economic and security benchmarks for the Iraqi government.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, who recently returned from his latest visit to Iraq, underscored again his view of any new U.S. military commitment. "A commitment of troops, [an] addition of troops, should be substantial and it should be sustained," he said.

Although public frustration over Iraq was a major factor driving the Democrats' return to power in Congress, all but the most radical anti-war lawmakers insist they will not support any congressional funding cutoff that could undermine U.S. troops.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham says such an action would have far-reaching effects. "It would be a monumental mistake that we would pay for decades," he said.

In a separate news conference Monday, House Speaker Pelosi repeated her opposition to any funding cutoff, but made clear Democrats intend to hold the administration's Iraq policy, and future spending requests, up to sharp scrutiny. "If the president is proposing an escalation, we want to see a justification for the mission. We want to make sure that our young people there will have what they need to succeed. And we want to know what is the reasonable prospect for success," she said.

Pelosi adds that Congress will insist on hearing from the president what she calls "the ground truth in Iraq" before any more American lives are lost or funds expended, with a specific focus on the overall impact on the health of the U.S. military.

Congressman David Obey, who occupies the powerful position of House Appropriations chairman, elaborates. "Before we give our support to any idea of a buildup of American forces there, we want to know what the president's plans are for building down and standing down those forces," he said.

Democratic Congressman Ike Skelton, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sounds a similar note. "He will need to justify to us any increase in troop levels," he said.

Skelton says stronger oversight will involve not only tougher questioning of administration officials, but steps to place provisions in legislation requiring more accountability, and strengthening the hand of Congress.

But Skelton sought to downplay the significance of the president's Wednesday address, saying that whatever President Bush does it is still "up to the Iraqis to make it [the situation in Iraq] or break it themselves."