White House claims 'strong consensus' on Iraq pullout


Sun Nov 27, 8:47 AM ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House for the first time has claimed ownership of an Iraq withdrawal plan, arguing that a troop pullout blueprint unveiled this past week by a Democratic senator was "remarkably similar" to its own.

It also signaled its acceptance of a recent US Senate amendment designed to pave the way for a phased US military withdrawal from the violence-torn country.

The statement late Saturday by White House spokesman Scott McClellan came in response to a commentary published in The Washington Post by Joseph Biden, the top Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he said US forces will begin leaving Iraq next year "in large numbers."

According to Biden, the United States will move about 50,000 servicemen out of the country by the end of 2006, and "a significant number" of the remaining 100,000 the year after.

The blueprint also calls for leaving only an unspecified "small force" either in Iraq or across the border to strike at concentrations of insurgents, if necessary.

Less than two weeks ago, McClellan blasted Democratic Representative John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), saying that by calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, the congressman was "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore," a stridently anti-war Hollywood filmmaker.

Biden's ideas, relayed first in a November 21 speech in New York, however, got a much friendlier reception.

Even though President George W. Bush has never publicly issued his own withdrawal plan and criticized calls for an early exit, the White House said many of the ideas expressed by the senator were its own.

In the statement, which was released under the headline "Senator Biden Adopts Key Portions Of Administration's Plan For Victory In Iraq," McClellan said the Bush administration welcomed Biden's voice in the debate.

"Today, Senator Biden described a plan remarkably similar to the administration's plan to fight and win the war on terror," the spokesman went on to say.

He added that as Iraqi security forces gain strength and experience, "we can lessen our troop presence in the country without losing our capability to effectively defeat the terrorists."

McClellan said the White House now saw "a strong consensus" building in Washington in favor of Bush's strategy in Iraq.

The Biden plan calls for preparatory work to be done in the first six months of next year, ahead of the envisaged pullout. It includes:

- forging a compromise among Iraqi factions, under which the Sunnis must accept that they no longer rule Iraq and Shiites and Kurds admit them into a power-sharing arrangement;

- building Iraq's governing capacity;

- transferring authority to Iraqi security forces;

- establishing a contact group of the world's major powers to become the Iraqi government's primary international interlocutor.

The White House statement also embraced a Senate amendment to a defense authorization bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate on November 15 that asked the administration to make next year "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" thereby creating conditions "for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq."

The measure was largely seen as a reprimand to the Bush administration often accused of lacking a viable strategy in Iraq.

But the White House insisted again the Senate was reading from its own playbook.

"The fact is that the Senate amendment reiterates the president's strategy in Iraq," the statement said.

The Bush administration has been steadily moving towards a drawdown of US troops in Iraq and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week spoke of a reduction in the US presence for the first time.

Her remarks contrasted sharply with her refusal last month to tell a Senate panel whether US troops would be out in a decade, acknowledging that insurgent attacks would continue "for quite a long time."

"In Iraq, unlike this country, nobody in the government seems to be saying that supporters of a timetable are cowards who cut and run at the first sign of trouble. On the contrary, timetables and deadlines seem to have earned wide support," a Milwaukee Journal editorial said this week.

"Recently, a group of about 100 Iraqi politicians -- Sunni Muslims, Shiites, Kurds -- gathered in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League and, after three days of discussion, signed a memorandum that 'demands a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable, dependent on an immediate national program for rebuilding the security forces,'" it noted.

"Establishing a reasonable target date for the withdrawal of US forces -- the end of next year, for instance -- would remind the Iraqis that it is up to them, not us, to defend their country."