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Bush camp works to sell troop surge to Congress, public
BY JIM KUHNHENN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration worked Thursday to persuade a skeptical Congress and American public to accept President Bush's troop buildup plan as the last best chance for reversing Iraq's slide. "We cannot afford to fail," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The plan that Bush unveiled the night before in a prime-time address to the nation headed straight into a political gale in Congress, with Democrats, some Republicans and an organized anti-war movement lined up against it.
Bush's new strategy increases U.S. forces in Iraq by 21,500 and demands greater cooperation from the Iraqi government.
Lawmakers were quick to pounce as Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other administration officials headed to Capitol Hill and Bush planned to visit Fort Benning, Ga. to sell the plan.
But Democratic options were limited. Party leaders have mulled a resolution of disapproval, but that would be nonbinding, 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.
Before her testimony at a congressional hearing, Rice defended Bush's new plan on morning television news shows. "The most important message is ... the enormous stakes we have in Iraq, that in fact we cannot afford to fail," she told CBS' "The Early Show."
She said that Bush considered many options "but believes that this is the best. First, we have to give it the best chance to work and we need the support of Congress, of the American people," Rice said.
Democratic opponents also made the rounds of morning shows. "We're not going to baby sit a civil war," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told NBC's "Today" Show. He said the Democratic-controlled Congress would not undercut troops already in Iraq but would explore ways to restrict the president from expanding the mission.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told CBS that since the new Democratic-led Congress convened last week, "questions are now being asked of this administration that haven't been asked for almost four years."
Democrats had few short-term options other than expressing their displeasure and forcing Democrats and Republicans alike to go on the record on a buildup.
Congress could cut funds or impose other restrictions, but that could take weeks or months. Furthermore, Bush could veto such legislation. And slim Democratic majorities make it unlikely that Congress could override such a veto.
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.
A new AP-Ipsos poll found approval for Bush's handling of Iraq hovering near a record low - 29 percent of Americans approve and 68 percent disapprove.
In a 20-minute prime time speech, Bush took responsibility for mistakes in Iraq and outlined a strategy he said would pull it out of its spiral of violence. The plan would increase the U.S. troop presence from the current 132,000 to 153,500 at a cost of $5.6 billion.
"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," Bush said. He said failure in Iraq "would be a disaster for the United States."
Congressional Democrats and a handful of Republicans assailed the plan as an ill-advised escalation that would further mire the United States in Iraq. Several noted that the president's strategy contradicted the advice of some of his generals.
But in remarks prepared for delivery at Thursday's House Armed Services Committee hearing, Gates offered assurances that the military command stands behind the president.
"Your senior professional military officers in Iraq and in Washington believe in the efficacy of the strategy outlined by the president last night," the defense secretary said.
Members of the panel voiced skepticism ahead of his appearance. Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo. called Bush's plan "three and a half years late and several hundred thousand troops short."
House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, chided Democrats. "If Democrat leaders don't support the president's plan," he said, "it's their responsibility to put forward a plan of their own for achieving victory."
While Republican House and Senate leaders stood with Bush, other Republican lawmakers bluntly rejected the president's strategy. Among them were Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
"This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost," said Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran.
Rice, headed for the Middle East later in the week, defended Bush's decision not to reach out to Iran and Syria, two U.S. adversaries that have significant influence in Iraq.
"The president is saying that we are going to make certain that we disrupt activities that are endangering and killing our troops and that are destabilizing Iraq," she told NBC.
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended last month that the administration directly engage both countries and seek their help in the war. But Bush has declined, citing Iran's efforts to arm itself with nuclear weapons and Syria's support of Hezbollah and Hamas, which the U.S. deems terrorist organizations.
"We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria," Bush said. "And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Bush said the United States planned to hold Iraqi government to a series of benchmarks, though he did not say what the consequences for the Iraqis would be. Among those steps:
- The Iraqi government would take over security in all of the country's provinces by November.
- Iraq would pass legislation to share oil revenue among all of Iraq's ethnic groups.
- The Iraqi government would spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction.
- A free hand, promised by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for Iraqi and American forces to enter any neighborhood seen as responsible for sectarian violence.