WASHINGTON — President Bush’s decision to deploy 21,500 additional troops to Iraq drew fierce opposition Thursday from congressional Democrats and some Republicans — among them Sen. Chuck Hagel, who called it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
The Nebraska Republican vowed to “resist” the plan, but the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., threatened a filibuster to block any legislation expressing disapproval of Bush's strategy.
Democrats, who number 51 in the Senate, plan to offer a nonbinding resolution that would make clear where each senator stands. “I think that (bipartisan passage) will be the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday.
“We expect to have 60” votes needed to block a filibuster, Reid said, noting that at least a dozen Senate Republicans have come out against the troop increase.
Bush said in a speech while visiting troops at Fort Benning, Ga., on Thursday that “it’s important for our fellow citizens to understand that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for our future.”'
The war has cost more than 3,000 American troops their lives and played a major role in the Democratic takeover of Congress in last fall’s elections.
Democrats who want a phased withdrawal from Iraq to start in four to six months were unswayed, and wasted no time before lambasting Bush’s plan for additional forces.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the current situation as “a time for a national imperative not to fail in Iraq.”
Signaling widening cracks within Bush's own Republican Party over his Iraq policy, not a single committee member spoke out in his support, and a few offered pointed criticism.
Escalation or augmentation?
In a heated exchange with Hagel, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, Rice disputed his characterization of Bush’s buildup as an “escalation.”
“Putting in 22,000 more troops is not an escalation?” Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and longtime critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, asked. “Would you call it a decrease?”
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“I would call it, senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad,” she said.
Hagel told Rice, “Madame secretary, Iraqis are killing Iraqis. We are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control.”
She disputed that Iraq was in the throes of a civil war. To that, Hagel said, “To sit there and say that, that’s just not true.”
Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat who ran as an independent, reiterated his support for Bush’s war strategy, while Florida Democrat Bill Nelson withdrew his backing.
“I have not been told the truth over and over again by administration witnesses, and the American people have not been told the truth,” Nelson said.
Voinovich, McCain reactions
Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio also said Bush could no longer count on his support.
Meanwhile, after a meeting at the White House, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed both doubts and optimism about the strategy.
“I am concerned about Maliki and his strength. I am concern as to whether these are sufficient number of troops,” he said. “But I do think we can succeed.”
McCain, a 2008 presidential contender, has been among a handful of lawmakers who have called for more — not fewer — U.S. troops in Iraq.
At a news conference, McConnell accused Democrats of secretly favoring a plan to cut off funding for the troops — an allegation that Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. denied.
McConnell conceded that Republicans as well as Democrats are troubled by Bush’s new policy, but said that “Congress is completely incapable of dictating the tactics of the war.”
McConnell’s filibuster threat underscored that at least some GOP leaders are still willing to stand up for the president in the battle over Iraq policy. Even so, Democrats would achieve their goal of forcing senators to show their positions on the war, whether the Senate votes on the resolution itself or a GOP effort to block it.
Bush’s new strategy, announced Wednesday in a prime-time address to the nation, increases U.S. forces in Iraq by 21,500 and demands greater cooperation from the Iraqi government.
Options for critics of the war were limited; Democratic leaders have mulled such a resolution of disapproval and there also has been talk of attaching a host of conditions to approval of a spending bill to cover the costs of the buildup.
Pentagon: 'Temporary surge'
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he could not say just how long the buildup would last. “It’s viewed as a temporary surge, but I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be,” Gates told a White House briefing.
But he also said the United States should know pretty soon whether Iraqis were living up to their part of the deal and increasing their own forces.
In her opening remarks, Rice acknowledged widespread concerns about the war that has gone on almost four years and cost more than 3,000 American military lives.
“I want you to know that I understand and indeed feel the heartbreak that Americans feel at the continued sacrifice of American lives, men and women who can never be replaced for their families, and for the concern of our men and women who are still in harm’s way,” she said.
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware told her: “Secretary Rice, to be very blunt, I cannot in good conscience support the president’s approach.”
In a tense exchange, Biden, D-Del., pressed Rice to say whether she was confident that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had the capability to provide enough Iraq troops to help in stabilizing the country.
“I think he knows that his government is in a sense on borrowed time,” she said.
Biden persisted, asking her again if she was confident al-Maliki would live up to his end of the bargain. “I’m confident,” she said.
Rice stressed Iraqi obligations for troops, money and the political will to allow the Bush plan to succeed. She promised oversight, without giving specifics.
“Iraqis are in the lead; we are supporting them,” Rice said.
Asked if the new U.S. and Iraqi offensive would go after Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-U.S. radical Shiite cleric, Gates said, “All lawbreakers are susceptible to being detained or taken care of in this campaign.” Sadr is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Meanwhile, a coalition of labor, anti-war groups and liberal organizations was announcing a multimillion-dollar advertising and grass-roots campaign against the commitment of extra troops.
In Wednesday’s 20-minute speech, Bush took responsibility for mistakes in Iraq and outlined a strategy he said would pull it out of its spiral of violence.
“If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home,” he said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.