Small Bipartisan Group in House Presses for Iraq Exit Strategy

By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

New York Times

June 16, 2005

WASHINGTON, June 16 - A resolution calling on President Bush to announce an exit strategy from Iraq was introduced in the House today by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including one who was once so upset about French opposition to the war that he wanted the House cafeterias to change the name "French fries" to "freedom fries."

Two Republicans and two Democrats held a news conference in which they prodded President Bush to announce a withdrawal timetable by the end of the year. Their resolution calls on him to start bringing American troops home by Oct. 1, 2006.

"Our troops have done everything we've asked of them," said one sponsor, Representative Neil Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii. "It's time to get serious about an exit strategy."

Representative Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican, who not many months ago was so incensed by French opposition to the American-led military campaign in Iraq, agreed. "After 1,700 deaths, over 12,000 wounded and $200 billion spent, we believe it is time to have this debate and discussion," he said.

The other sponsors are Representatives Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, and Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio.

The lawmakers introduced their measure a day after Celeste Zappala, whose son died in Iraq, visited Capitol Hill to demand "a very quick exit strategy." With opinion polls showing a drop in support for the war, and a British memo asserting that the Bush administration had intended to go to war as early as the summer of 2002, the words "exit strategy" are being uttered by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The flurry began over the weekend, when Mr. Jones called for the Bush administration to set specific goals for leaving Iraq.

Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, has introduced in the Senate a measure similar to the nonbinding resolution that Mr. Jones and his House colleagues are offering. In the House, the International Relations Committee last week voted overwhelmingly, 32 to 9, to call on the White House to develop and submit a plan to Congress for establishing a stable government and military in Iraq that would "permit a decreased U.S. presence" there.

Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, was convening a forum today on the so-called Downing Street Memo, a leaked document that appeared to suggest that the White House had made a decision to go to war in the summer of 2002. Next week, Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, is planning to read on the House floor the names of approximately 1,700 Americans who have died in the war.

Though most Republicans are steering clear of the exit strategy discussion, a handful are joining in. Representative Howard Coble of North Carolina, for instance, said on Wednesday that he was considering it.

"I'm not suggesting pulling out tomorrow or next month," said Mr. Coble, who favored going to war, "but I want that to be an option. I don't want us to spend an eternity in Iraq. So conceptually, I'm inclined to embrace Walter Jones's proposal."

Such comments by Republicans would have been heresy before last November's election, because no one in the party wanted to weaken President Bush. But now, with 2006 midterm elections approaching, members of Congress are hearing from constituents who are growing uneasy about the war. So a nascent discussion is emerging in Congress about America's involvement in Iraq and whether it is time for re-evaluation.

"Certainly, people are breaking ranks, and saying, 'You know what, things are not hunky-dory,' " said Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, who sponsored the measure that passed the International Relations Committee last week. Much to Mr. Crowley's surprise, it drew support from the panel's chairman, Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois, and 12 other Republicans.

Many Republicans - and a number of Democrats, including Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader - oppose setting a specific timetable for troop withdrawal, saying that to do so would only embolden insurgents. The Pentagon reiterated that position today. Lawrence DiRita, the principal Defense Department spokesman, said that to set an "artificial deadline" in Washington would be unwise, since "the situation in Iraq is developing along based on events in Iraq."

But lawmakers are keeping an eye on the polls, which reflect growing discontent with the war.

In a recent Gallup poll, 6 in 10 Americans who responded said the United States should withdraw all or some of its troops from Iraq. In another poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post, two-thirds of those questioned said the American military had gotten bogged down in Iraq. That is a welcome development for people like Ms. Zappala.

Her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, a National Guard reservist who in his civilian life was a social worker for mentally retarded adults, was killed last year after just six weeks in Iraq. He was assigned to the team looking for unconventional weapons, said his mother, who is director of the commission on aging for the city of Philadelphia and a co-founder of Gold Star Families of Peace, which represents relatives of fallen soldiers.

On Wednesday, the group met with Mr. Jones. "We actually gave him a little certificate for his courage," Ms. Zappala said. Though she said she was under no illusions that American troops would withdraw from Iraq any time soon, "that the conversation is happening," she said, "is very, very important."

David Stout contributed reporting for this article.