By Vicki Allen

Trying to patch over their differences before November elections, top congressional Democrats urged President George W. Bush on Monday to start pulling U.S. troops from Iraq this year but did not specify a time frame for completing the withdrawal.

Democrats, who have split over whether to demand a deadline for troop withdrawal, were seeking to present a united front on the war that has eroded Bush’s popularity and may hurt Republicans in elections to determine control of Congress.

"In the interests of American national security, our troops, and our taxpayers, the open-ended commitment in Iraq that you have embraced cannot and should not be sustained," members of the Senate and House of Representatives Democratic leadership and ranking members on key committees said in a letter to Bush.

080106Iraq.jpgThe letter called for withdrawing an unspecified number of troops this year, focusing the U.S. mission on counterterrorism and support of Iraqi forces, and redoubling diplomatic and reconstruction efforts to stabilize the country.

It reflected policies outlined in a resolution pushed by Senate Democrats that was defeated in June on a largely party-line vote. Democrats in the House have been more deeply divided over imposing a deadline for withdrawal, and were unable to come up with a consensus position during Iraq debate in that chamber in June.

With its broad call for policy changes, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Vietnam war veteran who rocked Congress last year when he called for withdrawing troops as quickly as possible, signed the letter along with other Democrats who have said a quick withdrawal would fuel the violence in Iraq.

Republicans have labeled Democrats as advocating "cut-and- run" policies and charged the party was in disarray over the war.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, said the Democratic leadership "continues to demand that American soldiers end their mission and wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists that we are fighting in Iraq."

The 14 Democrats who signed the letter, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, cited the surge in violence in Iraq as "the latest evidence that your administration lacks a coherent strategy to stabilize Iraq and achieve victory."

More than 2,500 U.S. troops have died in the war that has cost more than $300 billion since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Due to a surge in sectarian violence, the Pentagon is boosting U.S. force levels in Baghdad by about 5,000 and extending the deployments of 3,500 troops who were scheduled to come home.

© Reuters 2006