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U.S.: Debate Over New Iraq Plan Heats Up

New Democratic leaders Pelosi (left) and Reid after their election victory in November (epa) January 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The war of words is heating up in Washington ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush's expected unveiling this week of a new strategy for Iraq.

Opposition Democrats -- who control Congress -- are warning they will not support an "escalation" of the war. But they have yet to unveil an alternative, making their own strategy for responding to the president unclear.

"The question is: do we continue with a [Bush] policy that is failing?" said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) on January 7. "We've tried this policy twice in the last 12 months -- surging troops into Baghdad. Unfortunately, my friends [in the Bush administration] have got this backward. We need a political solution before you can get a military solution."

The Democratic leaders hope the increased oversight will raise the political stakes for the administration to show flexibility and force it to abandon policies that draw too much criticism.

Biden is one of the most outspoken of the Democrats who now control Congress and want to seize the moment to influence Bush's Iraq policy.

Time For A Phased Withdrawal?

Other Democratic leaders in Congress have been equally critical.

The leaders of the majority Democratic legislators in both the Senate and the House sent a letter to Bush on January 5 calling on the president to start a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

The two leaders -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat, Nevada) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) -- called for the withdrawal to begin in four to six months.

That is virtually the opposite of the president's expected plan to increase troop levels and reconstruction funding for Iraq.

The president is expected to announce an increase in force of up to 20,000 soldiers and the allocation of an additional $1 billion to revive the Iraqi economy.

Bush is also expected to set a number of goals intended to ease sectarian tensions and stabilize the country for the Iraqi government to meet

These goals will likely include holding provincial elections, resolving how Iraq's oil revenues are shared among Iraq's regions, and easing the government's policy toward members of the former ruling Ba'ath Party.

All these steps would aim at drawing Iraq's Arab-Sunni community more deeply into the political process.

Divided Opposition

But even as the war of words now heats up in Washington, Democratic legislators remain divided over how to respond to Bush.

Pelosi and Reid are trying to forge a unified opposition strategy that can also appeal to disaffected legislators from Bush's Republican Party. But they have stopped short of threatening to cut off funding for the Iraq war.

Pelosi said on January 7 that any request for additional funding would receive "the harshest scrutiny." And she said she would like to see Bush submit a budget request that clearly distinguished between money needed to maintain the current U.S. commitment in Iraq and money needed for a "surge."

But Biden acknowledged that Congress had little power to "micromanage the war."

That is because the U.S. Constitution limits congressional power to force the administration to distinguish finely between types of spending or to set caps on troops levels.

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), speaking January 7, acknowledged much the same.

"Congress's tools to micromanage the war are quite limited," McConnell said. "About all the Congress could do if it chose to do it -- and I don't believe it will choose to do it -- would be to cut off money for the troops. Beyond that we could pass resolutions; we can have hearings; we can debate the matter, which we will do. But beyond that I don't think Congress will have the ability to simply micromanage the tactics in the war, nor should it."

That may limit the opposition-led Congress's response strategy to Bush to an increase of congressional oversight of how the administration conducts the Iraq war.

A Dozen Hearings Scheduled

The Democratic leaders hope the increased oversight will raise the political stakes for the administration to show flexibility and force it to abandon policies that draw too much criticism.

So far, the congressional leadership has scheduled some dozen hearings on Iraq over the next three weeks.

That by itself marks a major escalation in congressional opposition to the war after years of endorsement of Bush's policies by the previously Republican-controlled legislature.

It also reflects what could be the likely pattern of the remaining two years of Bush's presidency.

That is, an increasingly tough fight over whether Washington maintains an open-ended commitment on Iraq or, instead, starts a process of phased withdrawal.

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