Congress Torn over Iraq Endgame ; Call to Withdraw Troops Is Splitting House Democrats - but Even Republicans Are Putting Pressure on the White House

Article excerpt

Rep. John Murtha's call for the withdrawal of US troops in Iraq is roiling both parties on the war - and intensifying a debate that is rapidly moving beyond the capacity of party leaders to control.

The fracture lines are most acute for the Democrats. Their two House leaders are divided by Mr. Murtha's proposal. And their party's chairman, Howard Dean, spurred controversy this week by suggesting that victory in Iraq is not possible. Some Democrats fear that stand may undermine their party's claim to be strong on national defense - and weaken their prospects to make gains in next year's midterm elections.

"Until Murtha's statement, Democrats could hide behind the 'we support the troops but deplore the war' rhetoric. By laying down this marker on the war, he's put Democrats in a very tough position," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

But most Republicans, meanwhile, weren't rushing to President Bush's defense, as he rolled out two big speeches in as many weeks defending the administration's record on a war that polls suggest has lost the support of most voters.

Underneath the public (and private) rifts in both parties, there's a growing consensus in Congress that the White House must be more concrete in defining what constitutes victory in Iraq - and more forthcoming in the metrics needed to measure progress.

After a two-hour caucus meeting on the war on Wednesday, Democrats emerged as divided as ever on the war. "We take great pride because we are not a rubberstamp caucus," said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is endorsing the Murtha proposal. The No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland is opposing it.

But Democrats are in agreement on the milestones they want met in Iraq. In a caucus with Democrats on Wednesday, Murtha, a 17-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, laid out the paper trail of his efforts to get more information from the Pentagon and White House on concrete evidence of improving conditions in Iraq.

He especially took issue with the administration's estimates of progress toward growth in the number of Iraqi forces prepared to take over responsibilities from American forces. The "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," published last month by the National Security Council, reports "more than 212,000 trained and equipped Iraqi Security Forces, compared with 96,000 in September of last year."

That estimate is at odds with a Pentagon estimate in 2004 that more than 200,000 Iraqis were at that time trained and under arms, Murtha said. …