Democrats Urge Bush to Change Course in Iraq

Amid growing political pressure over the worsening situation in Iraq, President Bush consults with his top military and civilian advisers on war strategy. On Friday, 12 Democratic leaders in Congress sent the president a letter, urging a change in course. Jacki Lyden interviews one of the signatories — Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliott is away.

This weekend, with an election looming and political pressure mounting over Iraq, President Bush mapped war strategy with his top advisors. He conferred with Generals Abizaid and Casey, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Hadley.

In his weekly radio address, the president pledged to make every necessary change to prevail in Iraq. But he ruled out a withdrawal from the battlefield before the mission is complete.

Yesterday, 12 Democratic leaders in Congress sent a letter to the president urging a change of course in Iraq. The letter noted that 200 Americans have been killed in the last 90 days.

One of the signatories was Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat of the House Armed Services Committee. I spoke with him today about the letter's call for a phased redeployment and transitioning of the U.S. mission in Iraq, and I asked him why the Democrats didn't use the word withdrawal.

Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri): Because quite honestly, you don't want to completely take American troops out of the region or away too far. You want them in Kuwait, Germany, or the United States with a possibility of bringing them back in case of a dire, dire emergency.

LYDEN: Do you have even a vague timetable in mind? This letter speaks about the beginning of this phased redeployment by the end of the year.

Rep. SKELTON: Well, I'm hoping that a redeployment can begin this year. That would send a strong message to the Iraqis that we don't intend to stay there forever.

Right now it appears that the battle for Baghdad is the crucial battle. It is the tipping point. It's the midway or the Stalingrad or the El Alamein of the Iraqi War, and that's why it's important that the Iraqis step up and help win the battle and get rid of the insurgents.

We have trained them. We're in the process of continuing to train them. We have done an awful lot both in blood and treasure, and the Americans are a generous people. But we're not going to stay there forever to do this.

LYDEN: How do you respond when President Bush says he's not going to cut and run? That's a very powerful term. It's potent language. And the administration would argue that talking about certain types of redeployment, withdrawing to Kuwait, say, really amounts to cutting and running?

Rep. SKELTON: That's not so. We want a stable Iraq. We know how important it is for the Middle East that there be a stable Iraq, that there be a responsive government. But there is a point where Americans are going to have to turn the reigns over and say, Iraqis, take the lead.

LYDEN: Congressman Ike Skelton, you very likely could become the next chairman of the House Armed Serviced Committee after the November election. Would a Democratic controlled House continue to support funding for the war and the troops at the levels requested by the president?

Rep. SKELTON: The Congress will not turn against the troops, at all. It's the strategy. You see, I'm convinced that the strategy from day one has been flawed. Numerous mistakes that were made caused me to say that we are reaping the perils of amateur strategy.

LYDEN: Would there be hearings to examine some of the failures?

Rep. SKELTON: I would certainly hope so. One thing that has been lacking is an oversight, an investigation subcommittee. That was done away with when the Republicans took charge, and I think it's very important. It's our job, oversight, to ask questions, and we haven't been able to do that fully.

LYDEN: Congressman Ike Skelton of Missouri is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and Congressman, thanks very much for being with us.

Rep. SKELTON: Jacki, thanks for calling.

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