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Out of Iraq, but ‘in the neighborhood'?

Senate GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell signaled Tuesday that he is looking for “a bipartisan agreement that we need a long-term deployment somewhere in the Middle East” — but he did not say that accord had to entail maintaining the U.S. deployment in Iraq itself.
Senator McConnell Outlines GOP Legislative Priorities
Seeking a deal with Democrats on Iraq: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tells reporters Tuesday he wants an agreement on long-term deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Senate GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky signaled Tuesday that he is looking for “a bipartisan agreement that we need a long-term deployment somewhere in the Middle East in the future” — but he pointedly did not say that accord had to entail maintaining the U.S. deployment in Iraq itself.

He said he hoped the politically charged debate in Congress over Iraq would not lead to an outcome in which “we just bring all the troops back home and thereby expose us once again to the kind of attacks we’ve had here” in the United States or attacks such as the one on the Navy ship USS Cole in 2000.

McConnell said if he and Democrats were able to reach an accord, the American troops would be “in that area of the world… It would be up to the generals to recommend where the troops ought to be. I think we need to be in the neighborhood of where the biggest problem is.”

The twin purposes of this deployment would be, he said, to pursue al-Qaida terrorists and to deter potential aggression by Iran.

Staying in the neighborhood
“It’s an important reminder to Iran that we’re in the neighborhood,” he told reporters in a Capitol Hill briefing.

McConnell’s remarks set the stage for what will likely be several weeks of contentious Senate debate over Iraq policy, with the congressionally mandated report next week by Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

McConnell’s comments Tuesday were an expansion of a position he took in a Fox News TV interview on Aug. 26.

“There's a good chance that in September we'll go in a different direction. I don't think that means an arbitrary surrender date, but I think it's entirely possible that the president will lay out a strategy that takes us into a different place, which hopefully, at the end of the day, ends up with some American troops forward deployed in the Middle East at the end of this draw down that many of us are anticipating.”

Combined with the statement by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., two weeks ago urging a small withdrawal of perhaps 5,000 soldiers from Iraq, it now appears that senior Republican leaders in Congress are signaling their intention to support reduction of the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Unanswered questions
But those signals themselves raise some questions: Are the Republican elder statesmen preparing the ground for something President Bush will say after Crocker and Petraeus report to Congress next week?

And what of the prospects of more chaos and ethnic cleansing in Iraq if there is a significant drawdown of U.S. forces? Can U.S. soldiers sit by in Kuwait or Turkey and watch Iraq descend into genocide?

McConnell also told reporters Tuesday that most of the other 44 senators in his GOP caucus had not yet decided in which direction they want Bush administration policy to go; they are waiting to hear what Petraeus and Crocker say next week.

Republicans have 22 Senate seats up for re-election next year, compared to only 12 Democratic-held seats.

At least six GOP incumbents are in some jeopardy, partly due to the war in Iraq.

McConnell himself is up for re-election next year; he won his fourth term in 2002 with nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Like McConnell, another GOP leader Rep. Adam Putnam, who ranks third in the House Republican hierarchy, stressed his interest in a bipartisan approach Tuesday.

Putnam said that based on reports he’d gotten from GOP House members who had trekked to Iraq in the past few weeks, “there was a feeling that progress is being made, not only militarily but at the grassroots political level as well.”

But he added, “There’s a continuing frustration with the lack of progress at the national political level.”

Is there a way for the United States to deal more and more with local officials in places such as Anbar province and put the Maliki government somewhat to the periphery?

A plan with 'bipartisan parentage'“There appears to be an emerging approach to that, which to be honest, has a bipartisan parentage,” Putnam replied. “Instead of putting all your eggs in (the basket of) a strong national government, having a national government that may look more like Articles of Confederation than the Constitution.”

Putnam said this approach “has some roots” in the plan for a federalized Iraq that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden has been talking about for months.

The GOP search for a bipartisan accord comes at a time when Democratic leaders are facing continued pressure from their own grassroots activists to pass some legislation forcing a pullout of U.S. troops.

“The popularity of Democrats in Congress is dwindling as they allow the Iraq occupation to continue,” said Tim Carpenter, president of Progressive Democrats of America in an e-mail to his supporters Tuesday, urging them “to flood the offices of our (Democratic) members of Congress with calls demanding an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”

It remains to be seen how important a factor disgruntled anti-war Democratic voters will be in next year’s elections and whether the disenchantment voiced by Carpenter will result in depressed Democratic voter turnout.