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
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. …