US Senate Democrats rap Petraeus plan for Iraq

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WASHINGTON, Sep 13 (Reuters) Senate Democrats rejected a plan by the top US commander in Iraq to withdraw some 30,000 troops by next summer, saying the figure was far short of what Americans wanted and vowing to act soon to try to step up the pullout.

''This is unacceptable to me, it's unacceptable to the American people,'' Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters yesterday about the plans Gen David Petraeus discussed with Congress this week.

Petraeus has recommended US troop levels be reduced to 130,000 from the current 169,000 by the summer of 2008, a step he said could be accomplished without jeopardizing recent security improvements.

That would return US troop strength to roughly the same level it was at before an increase, or ''surge,'' ordered by President George W Bush between February and June. Bush is expected to endorse Petraeus' recommendations in a speech on Thursday evening.

Reid urged Republicans to join Democrats to ''change the course of the war'' when a defense policy bill comes to the Senate floor next week, warning that otherwise the ''president's war'' was becoming ''the Senate Republicans' war.'' Past Democratic efforts to force withdrawals passed the House of Representatives but struggled to get enough votes in the closely divided Senate. Reid declined to give details on what the Democrats' proposals might contain, but said there could be as many as six of them.

One of the Iraq votes is likely to be on a proposal by Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb to give American troops more time off between tours of duty. It failed to pass in July but Webb said on Wednesday he thought he could get more Republican support.

'CONFIDENCE BUILDER' Bush loyalists like House Minority Leader John Boehner, who arrived in Iraq on Wednesday with a congressional delegation, think Republicans who support the war are in a stronger position after Petraeus' report.

''I'm committed to following the plans as outlined by General Petraeus: reasonable, responsible and achievable,'' Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a conference call from Iraq.

He said if conditions in Iraq continued to improve, it would ''benefit Republicans who stood on principle who made it clear success is critical to our national security.'' Democrats insisted the White House needed a change of policy on Iraq.

''We've got to go significantly below the pre-surge (troop) level,'' said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat. He is working on a proposal that would largely change the mission of US troops in Iraq from combat to support, which he said would require fewer forces.

But a Senate Republican said Democrats would have a hard time attracting more Republican votes for deeper pullouts now, because Petraeus' report had been a ''confidence builder.'' ''If they want to come forward with a bold rejection of the policy in Iraq, I doubt they have the votes to do that,'' said Sen Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican.

Congress faces another battle on Iraq war spending soon.

The White House's next request, expected to be as high as 0 billion, comes before the Senate Appropriations Committee in October, Chairman Robert Byrd said.

''I assure the committee that we will not write a blank check for this war,'' said Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and war opponent. His panel approved 459.3 billion dollars in defense spending for the Pentagon yesterday but the measure included no war funds.

Reuters SZ VP0423

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