U S Democrats say will push for Iraq withdrawal

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WASHINGTON, Nov 12 (Reuters) Democrats, who won control of the U S Congress, today said they will push for a phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq to begin in four to six months, but the White House cautioned against fixing timetables.

''First order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy,'' said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is expected to be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the new Congress.

Democrats will press President George W Bush's administration to tell the Iraqi government that U S presence was ''not open-ended, and that, as a matter of fact, we need to begin a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq in four to six months,'' Levin said on ABC's ''This Week'' program.

Bush has insisted that U S troops would not leave until Iraqis were able to take over security for their country, and has repeatedly rejected setting a timetable for withdrawal because, he says, that would only embolden the insurgents.

The White House said, however, that Bush is open to new ideas.

Bush will meet tomorrow with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that is expected to recommend alternative policies in its final report.

A suicide bomber killed 35 people at a police recruiting center in Iraq today in the bloodiest attack in months against recruits.

More than 2,800 American troops have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the unpopular war was a key factor in last week's elections in which Bush's Republican Party lost majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said it was important that any action be taken in a way to ensure that Iraq can succeed and have a democratic government that can sustain and defend itself.

'OPEN TO FRESH IDEAS' ''It's hard for me to see how that can be done on a fixed timetable,'' Bolten said on ABC's ''This Week'' program. ''But the president's open to fresh ideas here. Everybody's reviewing the situation.'' Bush has asked Gen Peter Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct a review at the Pentagon of Iraq strategy, and other national security agencies to do similar reviews, Bolten said.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said ''we need to redeploy,'' but that the decision should be made by military officers in Iraq.

He said on ''Face The Nation'' program on CBS that he would not insist on a specific date for drawing down troops, but that a withdrawal should start within the next few months.

The White House says Bush is not to receive final recommendations from the Iraq Study Group -- led by James Baker, a former secretary of state with close ties to the Bush family -- in the Monday meeting.

Bush chose a member of that panel, former CIA Director Robert Gates, to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose resignation was announced the day after elections gave control of Congress to Democrats for the first time since 1994.

Sen Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is expected to head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was inclined to support Gates, whose nomination requires Senate approval.

''I know some of his views on Iraq. I know he wasn't of the Rumsfeld school. And to put it very, very bluntly, as long as he's not there, Rumsfeld is there,'' Biden said on ABC.

Biden called for an international conference on Iraq, that would include Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Reuters DKA DB2236

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