Leading Republicans in Congress on Thursday declared that troop withdrawal legislation should be scrapped because the United States has made significant progress in the Iraq war, just as Democrats were resuming efforts to bring soldiers home.
"It should be off the table," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said of Democratic attempts to pass legislation to force President George W. Bush to withdraw some of the 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and wind down the combat mission there.
The Republican hardened stance followed months of speculation that September could usher in cooperation with Democrats on trying to craft a new Iraq policy. In recent months a small but growing number of Republicans have said it is time to develop a bipartisan strategy to bring troops home.
Democrats pointed to a new report that said the Iraqi army was improving to bolster arguments for starting to withdraw U.S. forces.
Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who headed the commission that studied Iraqi security forces, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States might be able to "adjust" the number of its forces in Iraq as early as next year, as the Iraqi army continues to improve.
The Iraqi army would be unable to take charge of the country's security for 12 to 18 months, and the national police should be scrapped and a new force set up to replace it, said the report by the Jones commission.
Meanwhile the United States should reconsider its "footprint" in Iraq, and "significant reductions" in U.S. forces were possible, the report said.
Many military analysts think the United States will have no choice but to remove some troops next year to give combat soldiers a rest. Jones suggested U.S. forces that remain take on more missions enforcing border security with Syria and Iran.
'Cut the cords of dependence'
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said Jones' report showed "it is indeed long overdue that we cut the cords of dependence and push the Iraqis to take more responsibility and ownership by giving them the lead in counterinsurgency operations."
Levin is working on a bill to start a withdrawal of troops this year but with no firm date for completing the pullout.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Democrats would renew their push for changing the direction of the Iraq war. In a conciliatory move, he did not say Democrats would necessarily insist on specific timetables for withdrawing troops as they did earlier this year.
But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters of "significant progress in Iraq," and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the 4-1/2-year war effort was "finally paying dividends."
"We're at a crossroads. Pour it on. Seize the moment ... take withdrawal off the table," said Graham, who last month served in Iraq as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force reserves.
Next week Congress will hear from U.S. Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. Both are expected to report significant military progress in Baghdad since the start of a troop surge last January.
Republicans are hoping their testimony blunts a more pessimistic assessment delivered to Congress this week by the congressional investigative agency. It said the Iraqi government had failed to meet 11 out of 18 political and military goals.
Reid alluded to "things we can do on a bipartisan basis" to get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to avoid procedural roadblocks to legislation. But Reid also warned that any bill "has to be meaningful and force the president to do something ... to change course" in Iraq.
Any legislation urging troop withdrawals without timetables could lose the support of some Democrats.
"If we take away deadlines, benchmarks, timelines, what is the urgency that will move them (the Iraqi government) to act?" asked Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a leading Democratic presidential candidate.