By Aamer Madhani and Liz Sly
WASHINGTON - Laying out their toughest challenge for the Bush administration since taking control of Congress, Democrats in the House and Senate moved Thursday to set firm deadlines to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2008.
The calls for a pullout deadline immediately set off partisan bickering as Republican leaders accused Democrats of setting conditions that could lead to the failure of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who introduced legislation in the House calling for troops to be redeployed by Sept. 1, 2008, said the move is necessary to wind down the four-year-old conflict, which has already left more than 3,100 U.S. troops dead.
Separately, the Senate Democrats introduced binding legislation directing the president to begin a phased redeployment within 120 days with the goal of redeploying all combat forces by March 31, 2008, but the Republican leadership immediately said it would not agree to bring the proposal to debate next week.
The latest maneuvering comes as Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said the U.S. military would need to maintain its increased troop levels for some time if it expects to pacify the insurgency and stamp out sectarian fighting.
Some Democrats complained that their legislative leaders have been slow in taking meaningful action on Iraq since wresting control from the Republicans in last November's midterm elections.
With the new strategy, the Democrats are acceding to the White House's plan to send an additional 21,500 combat troops and 7,000 support troops to Iraq but are trying to ensure that the escalation will be the Bush administration's final gambit in pacifying Iraq.
"The president's strategy is not working, and Congress must decide whether to follow his failed policies or whether to change course," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
With the House measure, Pelosi hopes to satisfy the desires of some in the party, particularly the more liberal wing, to hasten the withdrawal, while reassuring moderates hesitant to set conditions that could be seen as tying the hands of commanders in the field.
The legislation, which is attached to a spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also calls for an additional $1.2 billion to finance the war in Afghanistan and $3.5 billion for the Veterans Health Administration to assist returning veterans - points that the Democratic leadership is counting on to help draw support from moderate Republicans who have grown weary of the Iraq war.
"We will come together and find our common ground," Pelosi said. "I believe in the end we will be unified."
The Republican leadership quickly retorted that the Democratic leadership was trying to bring its political weight to bear on the commanders in the field, and that such a move would telegraph arbitrary timelines to the enemy.
The White House called the proposal a "non-starter" and dismissed the move as an attempt to find comity among the various Democratic Party factions.
The measure comes just days after an anti-war plan floated by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., collapsed. It would have required the Pentagon to meet readiness and training standards for U.S. troops being sent into the battlefield and would have effectively shut down the war as the Pentagon would have had difficulty finding enough fully rested, trained and equipped units to meet its needs.
Senior White House adviser Dan Bartlett said the newest plan is little more than a "political compromise in the Democratic caucus of the House" and would have a dire effect on the security of Iraq if it is passed.
"It would unnecessarily handcuff our generals on the ground," Bartlett told reporters aboard Air Force One with President Bush headed to South America. "Obviously, the administration would vehemently oppose and ultimately veto any legislation that looks like what was described today."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said he hoped that his committee could complete markup of the legislation next week and that the full House could debate the bill the following week.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House minority leader, said soon after the Democrats unveiled their plan that the insurgents would simply sit back and wait for U.S. troops to leave before pressing ahead with their attacks.
"Gen. Petraeus should be the one making the decisions on what happens on the ground in Iraq, not Nancy Pelosi or John Murtha," Boehner said. "Under the guise of supporting our troops, Democrats are actually mandating their failure."
The House plan would require Bush to certify by July 1 and again by Oct. 1 that Iraq is making progress toward building its security apparatus and stabilizing the country.
If the Iraqi government met those benchmarks, U.S. troops would end their combat role no later than Sept. 1, 2008. If Iraq did not meet either of the deadlines, troop withdrawals would begin immediately and be completed in six months.
The legislation also allows for Bush to waive the standards, but such a situation could be embarrassing to a White House that maintains the troop increase is already having a positive effect in Baghdad and restive Anbar province.
Petraeus told reporters in Baghdad that it is likely the U.S. will have to sustain the surge in troop levels for the foreseeable future if the new plan to secure Baghdad is to have a chance of success.
He said he anticipated no new requests for troops in the foreseeable future, but did not rule out that more may be needed.
The general also said the use of force "is not sufficient" to end the conflict and political talks must eventually include some militant groups now opposing the U.S.