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Bush set to pull out 60,000 troops

Tim Reid/London Times | November 25 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH is planning a major pullout of US troops from Iraq amid rising opposition to the war on Capitol Hill and across America.

After a fortnight in which the political debate has rapidly moved from how to fight the war to how best to get out of Iraq, the White House is looking at reducing troop levels by at least 60,000 next year.

Confirming the worst fears of the war’s conservative supporters, who argue that more troops are needed to defeat the insurgency, senior military officials made clear yesterday that the Bush Administration’s goal is to cut troop levels from 160,000 to below 100,000 by the end of 2006.

Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, far from denying the withdrawal plan first reported in The Washington Post, said that a gradual pullout of troops could begin “fairly soon”, and that the number of coalition troops is “clearly going to come down”.

Dr Rice told Fox News that the US will not need to maintain its present troop levels in Iraq for “very much longer”, because Iraqi security forces are “stepping up”. She added: “I think that’s how the President will want to look at this.”

The talk of withdrawal comes after a profound and swift change in attitude about Iraq in Congress. The issue, festering just below the surface for months, has exploded in Washington and is resonating loudly throughout America. In the past fortnight the war has eclipsed every other subject and is accelerating Mr Bush’s slide in the polls.

For the first time senior Republicans are demanding an exit strategy, and with nearly two thirds of Americans now believing that the invasion was a mistake, the political debate is focused on how to end US involvement.

The mood swing began after the US death toll in Iraq passed 2,000 last month, days before the indictment of Lewis Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s former chief-of-staff, for his role in the CIA-leak scandal.

Democrats exploited Mr Libby’s indictment to broaden the debate about how the White House made the case for war, accusing the Administration of manipulating prewar intelligence. Those claims triggered fierce rebuttals from Mr Bush and Mr Cheney. They alleged that Democrats, many of whom voted for the war, saw the same intelligence as the White House. Mr Cheney called the accusations “revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety”.

But polls suggest the Democrat claims had some success. For the first time, a majority of Americans believe that Mr Bush is dishonest. Only 29 per cent believe that Mr Cheney is honest. The President’s approval rating is 36 per cent.

With debate about how the White House led the country into war raging, the Republican-controlled Senate backed a resolution last week — by 79 to 19 — that a phased redeployment of US forces from Iraq should begin next year.

The sponsors of that proposal were John Warner, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Bill Frist, the Republican Senate leader.

They denied that the move was to distance Republicans from an increasingly unpopular war before next year’s mid-term elections. But John McCain, one of the few Republicans advocating a troop increase, said of his party: “They’re nervous. They see the polls.”

Bill Clinton, the former President, then appeared to disavow his support for the war, declaring it to have been a “big mistake”.

The issue moved centre stage on Friday after John Murtha, a Democrat congressman and a decorated Vietnam veteran who voted for the war, called for a total withdrawal of US troops. That call provoked an ugly and at times hysterical debate in the House of Representatives on Friday night. In a moment of vaudevillian theatrics, one Democrat crossed the floor with his fists raised.

Although Mr Murtha’s proposal for an immediate withdrawal was defeated 403 to 3, Republican attacks on the former Marine’s patriotism backfired. Talk about withdrawal, recently at the fringes of debate, now dominates the agenda. In the past 48 hours several Democrats with their eyes on the 2008 presidential race have talked about a phased pullout.

Fred Barnes, a commentator on the conservative Weekly Standard, said: “These events are ominous . . . they suggest that troop removal has superseded victory as the primary American concern.”

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said: “Americans are demanding a light at the end of the tunnel. Congress is responding to the question: when will it be over?”

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