The tide of Republican defections from President George W. Bush’s camp swelled Saturday when two more US senators joined the chorus of critics of his Iraq policy, demanding change.

But while expressing sharp disagreement with the strategy of “surging” the number of US troops in Iraq, Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire stopped short of backing legislation that would force the White House to begin a drawdown of US troops in Iraq.

“It should be clear to the president that there needs to be a new strategy,” said Alexander told The Los Angeles Times. “Our policy in Iraq is drifting.”

Gregg, who up to now had belonged to the camp of Iraq hardliners, said in an interview with the same newspaper that attempts to put down the Iraqi insurgency with higher numbers of US troops “don’t seem to be making a lot of progress.”

It is vital to have “a clear blueprint for how we were going to draw down,” he said.

The new cracks in the Republican front opened just three days after Bush urged Americans to support his policy of maintaining 159,000 US troops in Iraq, arguing that if they were to quit Iraq prematurely, Al-Qaeda terrorists would bring the war to US soil.

Withdrawing troops “based on politics, not on the advice and recommendation of our military commanders, would not be in our national interest,” the president told members of the West Virginia Air National Guard as they celebrated Independence Day on Wednesday.

The White House has urged Congressional Republicans to maintain a united front on Iraq at least until September, when top US military commanders in Iraq were to present their assessment of the effectiveness of the 30,000-troop surge, which was begun by Bush early this year.

But on Thursday, Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico jolted the Republican establishment by publicly announcing that his patience had run out and he was “unwilling” to continue lending his support to “our current strategy.”

Domenici argued that he now supported “a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home.”

A couple of month ago, just two US Republican senators, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon, openly opposed the current Iraq policy.

But the floodgates opened two weeks ago when Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated on the Senate floor that “our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond” and demanded urgent change.

Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio echoed Lugar’s concerns in a letter to the president, which contained a detailed action plan and argued that while the United States “must not abandon” its mission in Iraq, “we must begin to develop a comprehensive plan for our countrys gradual military disengagement from Iraq.”

Voinovich argued that the Iraqi government and the country’s neighbors play must step in and begin playing a larger role in stabilizing Iraq.

Meanwhile Senator John Warner of Virginia, a Republican stalwart and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Lugar for speaking out.

However, most Republican critics have made it clear they will not support new Democratic efforts to pass legislation aimed at forcing Bush’s hand in beginning a pullout from Iraq or denying funds for the war.

Such efforts could come as early as this coming week when the Senate begins considering a massive defense authorization bill.

According to congressional officials, Democrats are likely to use this opportunity to insert into the bill language that would include a timetable for a US military pullout from Iraq.

Efforts to include such language into an earlier bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan faltered when Democrats failed to garner the votes necessary to override Bush’s veto.

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