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Democrats boxed in politically by situation in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Despite persistent complaints about President Bush's policy in Iraq, few leading Democrats want to bring the GIs home anytime soon.

The closest the party's presidential hopefuls have to a consensus approach would leave American troops in Iraq indefinitely and hope for more international help—not strikingly different from Bush's policy.

The result is that the Democrats are in a box, eager to rip Bush for sending troops to Iraq without the support of many allies, but unwilling to advocate a withdrawal that they think would leave Iraq in turmoil, U.S. standing damaged abroad and their own political fortunes shaky if they were cast as weak.

"Early exit means retreat or defeat. There can be neither," retired Gen. Wesley Clark said Thursday, the latest Democrat to outline his plan for Iraq. "Failure in Iraq will not only be a tragedy for Iraq. It will be a disaster for America and the world. It would give the terrorists of al-Qaida a new base of operations weaken our moral authority, destroy respect for our power in the Middle East and throw this region into greater turmoil."

Several other Democratic presidential candidates take similar stands.

"Our honor is at stake," former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun said at a debate this week. "We can't just cut and run," added former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

One candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, wants to send more American troops.

Short of withdrawing U.S. forces, Democrats are left proposing different ways to get other countries to send soldiers and money. That, they say, would take the American flag off the occupation and, in the words of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, take the target off the backs of U.S. GIs.

Several propose having the NATO alliance take over the military operation. Clark urged that Thursday, though he would keep the effort under U.S. command. Clark is a former commander of NATO. Other candidates urging NATO involvement include Dean, Lieberman and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But NATO decisions are made by group consensus, and several key NATO nations in Europe, led by France and Germany, have made it clear that they want no part of occupying Iraq.

Kerry wants to turn over the military operation in Iraq to a United Nations force under U.S. command.

Only two of the party's nine presidential candidates urge withdrawing American troops, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York. But even Kucinich makes his proposal contingent on getting the United Nations to move in first, at best an uncertain prospect. Indeed, the United Nations withdrew all its personnel from Baghdad after suicide-bomb attacks there.

In fact, it's unclear how any new Democratic president would convince allies such as France, Germany or Russia to reverse position and send troops to Iraq.

George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, called the proposal for foreign help a "throwaway" line.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, all but called it a dream.

"I don't think we ought to give up on that, but I think it's becoming clear that not much is going to be forthcoming and even if there is, it's going to be relatively small compared to the needs," Levin said.

Pressed to explain how he would accomplish it during a recent appearance on CBS, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri suggested humility and personal charm.

"You sit down with leaders of other countries and you talk to them, you collaborate with them, you treat them with respect and you get the help that we should get from our friends," he said.

Another alternative popular among Democrats in Congress is to turn over control only of the civilian reconstruction of Iraq to an international group such as the United Nations—a step Bush refuses to take. Yet another would set a strict timetable for turning over control of Iraq's government to the Iraqi people, a plan the Bush administration rejects as impossible to schedule, given the unpredictable circumstances.

Ultimately, none of the Democratic proposals would get Americans out of Iraq fast.

"They're pushing halfway steps picking around the edges," said David Swanson, an aide to Kucinich. "As long as American troops are there, coffins are going to be coming home."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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