A congressional Democrat is calling on the Bush administration to step up diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors to bring stability to the country and allow for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Senator James Webb of Virginia made his comments in a Washington speech, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Senator Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has long argued that the conflict in Iraq cannot be settled militarily, and not as long as the United States continues to occupy the country. It is a point he underscored again Thursday:

"I do not believe we are going to have true stability in Iraq as long as there are American troops in Iraq, period," said James Webb.

But Webb, a former Republican who served as Navy Secretary in the Reagan administration, says he does not support the idea of a timeline for a troop withdrawal. Instead, he believes the focus should be on diplomacy to achieve that end.

"Properly balanced, robust diplomacy will enable us to bring greater stability to the region, to remove the American military from Iraq, to increase our ability to defeat international terrorism writ large and finally to focus on the true strategic challenges that face us around the world," he said.

Senator Webb welcomed the international conference that was held in Baghdad earlier this month that focused on efforts to end sectarian violence. He said plans for a follow-up ministerial meeting next month are, in his words, a hopeful sign.

Webb called on the Bush administration to seek greater diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran, and cautioned against any U.S. military action against Iran without congressional authorization. He has introduced legislation that would withhold U.S. funds from being used for any military operation against Iran without congressional approval.

"This legislation is carefully drawn, with exceptions that will allow our military to defend itself against attacks based in Iran, including directly preempting these kinds of attacks, and including hot pursuit into Iranian territory if our forces are attacked by forces that might withdraw into Iran," noted Senator Webb. "It takes no options off the table with respect to our long held positions with regard to Iran's nuclear program or our demand that Iran recognize Israel.

Webb said he would support a strengthening of sanctions against Iran with the goal of isolating the country's current leadership.

Webb's profile in Congress has been on the rise since he delivered the Democrats' response to President Bush's State of the Union address in January. He says he met with a publisher soon after that speech to discuss writing a book that would recommend a future course for the United States.