WASHINGTON—In a strongly worded letter to President Bush, the Democratic leaders of Congress said Friday that they oppose any escalation, or "surge," of U.S. troop strength in Iraq, as Bush is expected to propose next week.
Sending more American soldiers to Iraq will only endanger them, won't bring stability and will only delay the day that Iraqis take responsibility for their own country, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
They urged Bush instead to begin withdrawing some U.S. forces from Iraq over the next four to six months.
Coming days before Bush is to announce a new Iraq strategy and on the second day of Democratic majority rule, their emphatic statement was the strongest sign yet that Democrats in Congress will challenge Bush head-on over Iraq.
Separately, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, on Friday said that one option Democrats have discussed is requiring the president to seek congressional approval for adding troops beyond a certain level.
The president is widely expected to propose an increase of 9,000 to 30,000 troops in an address expected Wednesday. Details haven't been disclosed officially, and it's possible that the president will attach conditions to any troop surge, such as making it conditional upon actions by Iraqi leaders to stop the violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
But the Democratic leaders rejected the idea of a surge under any circumstances: "Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain. And it would undermine our efforts to get the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. We are well past the point of more troops for Iraq," Reid and Pelosi wrote.
They emphasized that top U.S. military officers shared their stand against increasing U.S. forces in Iraq. They were increased in Baghdad last summer when Sunni-Shiite violence was raging, and the death toll only increased.
On Nov. 15, Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander for Iraq and the region, said in testimony to Congress that he had asked every division commander in Iraq if more American troops would increase chances of success.
"And they all said no," Abizaid testified. "And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."
The alternative Reid and Pelosi sketched out was in line with recommendations last month from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
"Rather than deploy additional forces to Iraq, we believe the way forward is to begin the phased redeployment of our forces in the next four to six months, while shifting the principal mission of our forces there from combat to training, logistics, force protection and counter-terror," the Reid-Pelosi letter said.
They also called for a regional diplomatic push to get Iraqi leaders to find a way to share power and end sectarian fighting.
"In short, it is time to begin to move our forces out of Iraq and make the Iraqi political leadership aware that our commitment is not open ended, that we cannot resolve their sectarian problems, and that only they can find the political resolution required to stabilize Iraq," the letter said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Republican Senate leader, said most Republicans will "wait to see what (the president) is going to recommend before we talk about it."
McConnell said he didn't hear about the Democrats' letter in advance, but added that he felt that his Democratic counterpart had "no obligation to consult with me on the biggest issue confronting the country."
Another Republican senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona, said in a statement: "In the spirit of national unity, we should at least hear what the President proposes before we criticize it, and once we hear him out, work together in giving his proposals an opportunity to work."
Brian Darling, a congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that the Democrats' letter was premature and added that it "sounds like the same old politics."
But Michelle Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank, said the Democratic leadership was only saying what they expect to see in Iraq policy and setting the stage for one of the most important debates in recent American history.
Several senators, including Democrats Barack Obama of Illinois and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, met with Bush on Friday to share their ideas on Iraq. Bush didn't preview his plan, said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
"There were some vigorous exchanges," he added.
Obama said he told Bush he opposes a surge. He added that Democrats and Republicans share "grave misgivings about what's taking place."
More House and Senate Republicans and Democrats will meet with Bush on Monday.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday that a surge would be "three and a half years too late and several hundred thousand forces short." Skelton has said that the United States should have gone into Iraq with enough troops in 2003 to prevent the chaos that has spiraled into civil war.
Also Friday, the White House announced that Bush will nominate Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, to replace Abizaid as the Central Command chief and Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus to replace Gen. George Casey in Iraq. Casey would replace Gen. Peter Schoomaker as Army chief of staff.
(William Douglas, Matt Stearns and Ron Hutcheson contributed to this article.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.