Lugar: Time to pull troops out

Pressure on the US administration to start pulling out of Iraq deepened Sunday with one of the Senate’s most respected Republicans calling for an “orderly” withdrawal of troops in the months ahead.

Richard Lugar, the most senior Republican yet to break ranks with President George W. Bush over the war, said Bush should embrace moderates from both sides in Congress to chart a new strategy focused on diplomacy.

Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent shock waves through Washington last week by arguing that US policy in Iraq “has lost contact” with national security interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Speaking on CBS News, the respected 75-year-old fleshed out his dissenting views by calling for a diplomatic forum to bring together the United States, Iraq and all of its neighboring countries.

He also recommended that a smaller contingent of US troops remain to train Iraqi security forces and secure its borders.

“And then, withdrawal of a majority of American troops in a calm, orderly way, over the next few months, so that we refurbish our ability to meet problems elsewhere in the world,” the senator said.

From the floor of the Senate on Monday, Lugar shook the White House by arguing that Bush’s “surge” of nearly 30,000 troops had “very limited” chances of success given the pressing timeframe and the political climate in Iraq.

The rising death toll for US personnel in Iraq, and anger over Iraqi authorities’ failure to use the surge to seize the political initiative, are stoking Republican discontent.

Lugar, while opposing any Democratic-sponsored cut in war funding, said Bush would be unwise to insist on no change of course as national elections loom next year.

Asked how Republicans would respond to Bush digging in his heels, he said: “Well, many will support that, but not very many.”

Democrats are preparing a new offensive this month in Congress’s latest war authorization bill. But Bush is pleading for patience ahead of a report by US commanders in September on the impact of his surge.

Fellow Republican George Voinovich, who like Lugar has resisted Democratic attempts to curtail Bush’s war powers, last week recommended a disengagement from Iraq as the White House warned of a “very difficult summer” for US troops.

James Clyburn, the Democratic majority whip in the House of Representatives, pointed to Lugar’s and Voinovich’s comments to suggest that the tide is turning.

Speaking on CNN Sunday, he said “we may have some other people marching to the drums that we’ve been beating now since back in January,” when the Democrats retook control of Congress.

Eyes are now on another veteran Republican, Senator John Warner — as respected on military matters as Lugar is on foreign policy — who may have the power to fracture Bush’s Senate support base on the war.

Lugar said that Warner had been “very encouraging” since his Senate intervention last week.

He argued that Iraqi politicians had failed to use the breathing space provided by the surge to enact crucial legislative changes, including to the constitution and on sharing oil revenues among warring factions.

“They’re not going to be able to do that in that period of time of December or next March, or what have you. It may take years. This is sad, but that is the case,” Lugar said.

The senator said that following talks with national security advisor Stephen Hadley, he hoped for a positive response from the White House to his proposal for troop withdrawals married to a shift in diplomacy.

“Now, I hope something will come of this now, not punting the ball down to September when these reports all come in and we have some good news, some bad news,” he said.