Bush team grilled by hostile Democrats over Iraq plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Democrats and some moderate Republicans on Thursday hammered President George W. Bush’s plan to send more US troops to Iraq, leaving the White House increasingly isolated in its decision to deepen American involvement in the unpopular war.

Bush and his top military and diplomatic team struggled to convince a hostile Democratic-led Congress and a sceptical public that sending 21,500 extra troops to help the beleaguered Iraqi government regain control of Baghdad would work.

Facing a grilling by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that Bush’s revised strategy would put more pressure on Iraqis to take over their own security, vital to any eventual US military pullback.

Democrats who want a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq to start in four to six months were unswayed, and wasted no time before lambasting Bush’s blueprint for dispatching 21,500 extra troops to fight an increasingly unpopular war.

As Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, its Democratic chairman offered a tough view of Bush’s plan. “I believe it’s a tragic mistake,” said Delaware Senator Joe Biden, a 2008 presidential candidate.

Even some Republicans joined the fray. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, also a potential 2008 contender for the White House, called Bush’s plan “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam” and vowed to resist it.

Speaking at the White House, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the extra US troops would be sent in     in waves — “there will be no D-Day” — and indicated they may not all go if the Iraqi government did not keep its end of the bargain.

While Bush set no deadlines for the Iraqis in his White House address on Wednesday night, Gates said Washington should know whether the Iraqis are capable within a couple of months.

Under the plan, focused on securing Baghdad and halting a collapse into civil war, Iraqi troops are to help sweep neighbourhoods clean of insurgents regardless of sectarian influences, US officials said.

Democrats leading challenge

Democrats, in control of Congress after November elections seen largely as an anti-war referendum, spearheaded the challenge to Bush, who has failed previously to rally support for a conflict that has killed more than 3,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

But Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who had lobbied hard for a troop increase, said it was the right decision.

“I do not guarantee victory or success with this new strategy,” McCain told reporters. “If we do fail there’s going to be chaos in the region and I believe that we would pay an even heavier price in American blood and treasure,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat sought bipartisan support for a symbolic vote on Bush’s plan. He pledged to give the new strategy a careful look but said it was a serious mistake to put “more US combat forces in the middle of an Iraqi civil war.” An ABC News-Washington Post poll taken after Bush’s address said 61 per cent of Americans surveyed opposed his plan to send more troops while 36 per cent supported it.

Rice said the administration would give Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki some breathing space after the blunt language by the president. She is headed to the Middle East on Friday but is not expected to go to Baghdad.

“The president was pretty tough last night and we’ll be pretty tough today. Give them a little time to now do something,” she said in comments monitored by Reuters from a television feed.

Bush headed to a friendly audience at the army base at Ft. Benning, Georgia, to argue the case for his plan.

Iraqis, meanwhile, voiced scepticism that a troop increase would do much good.

Maliki has vowed to lead the new Baghdad security operation and indicated it will strike not only insurgents from Saddam Hussein’s once-dominant Sunni minority but also groups loyal to fellow Shiites — a key demand of Washington and Sunnis, who say Iran is backing Shiite gunmen.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly said on Thursday that Maliki’s team had to do a better job on security than in its seven months in power so far: “They haven’t performed in the past … They have to get organised right away, and they are.” In Sadr City, the Baghdad slum bastion of the Mehdi Army led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, residents said US and Iraqi troops staged an overnight raid on armed factions.

Sunni leaders complain —as US commanders have done —  that too little was done last year to strike Shiite groups blamed for some of the death squad killings. Police found 60 bodies around the city on Wednesday alone.

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