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Senate calls on Bush to lay out Iraq exit strategy

WASHINGTON—Displaying growing frustration with the war in Iraq, the Senate demanded Tuesday that President Bush identify a strategy for withdrawing U.S. troops but rejected calls for a pullout timetable.

In a bipartisan 79-19 vote, the Republican-run Senate said 2006 "should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" in which Iraqi troops began taking the lead in providing their own security. It also said the Bush administration "needs to explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq."

The measure was the strongest example yet of the Senate's growing assertiveness in moving to restrain the administration's war conduct. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., drafted the language. The wide vote margin reflects escalating public opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, and it came despite Bush's aggressive new campaign against critics of the war.

The language was attached to a broad defense-policy bill, which also included a provision by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., banning the inhumane treatment of foreign detainees and another measure that would give detainees at a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, restricted access to federal courts. The bill later passed the Senate 98-0.

"We want to get into the ball game," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped push the court and torture provisions. "We're off the sidelines. We want to create some rules of the road" consistent with the traditional "role of the Congress in the time of war."

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the vote was a "significant event" and that the administration should begin drawing down troop strength in Iraq next year. He chided Bush for suggesting several times in recent days that war critics are undermining American troops and comforting the enemy.

"The Bush administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and elsewhere, and should not be demonized or condemned for disagreeing with them," Hagel said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. "Suggesting that to challenge and criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democratic, nor what this country has stood for over 200 years."

Bush's presidential counselor, Dan Bartlett, said the measure reaffirmed the White House's strategy of training Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible and not pulling out immediately.

"This was a strong repudiation of Democratic efforts to pass legislation calling for immediate, premature withdrawal from Iraq before the mission was complete," he said from Japan, where's he traveling with Bush.

The House of Representatives' version of the defense legislation contains none of those three provisions. The bills will have to be merged in a House-Senate conference. Some congressional aides said that would be nearly impossible to complete this year.

Despite the bipartisan votes, the rhetoric on the Iraq war was decidedly partisan and recalled the heated passions of 1970 and 1971, when the Senate debated measures to withdraw from Vietnam.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the outcome a "vote of no confidence on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq."

Democrats took credit for the vote, noting that the final language was nearly identical to a proposal offered by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., except that Levin's would've required Bush to submit a timetable for phased troop withdrawal. It was defeated 58-40.

Frist said the Levin amendment was a "cut and run" policy that would leave Iraqis helpless.

"It's irresponsible to tell the terrorists, who we know are waiting to take us out, what that timeline is," he said. "A cut and run strategy plays right into their hands."

He denied that the vote reflected dissatisfaction with Bush's policy.

"That's absurd; it's ridiculous," he said. "The fact is that Congress, this body, is charged with oversight of the executive branch regardless of which party is in power at the time."

A new Gallup Poll puts Bush's approval rating at 37 percent, a new low. The poll also found 63-35 percent disapproval of the president's Iraq policy. Lawmakers are intensely aware of Bush's sinking status as many face re-election next year.

"The growing unrest across the country is being reflected here," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who faces a tough re-election campaign. "Senator Warner did not want to put Republicans in a difficult situation of just voting against Levin, so he gave the Republicans something to vote for."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld downplayed suggestions that the Senate was growing impatient with his handling of the war. "It's understandable that the American people and the Congress are interested in knowing as much as possible about a war," he said. "A war is an important thing. It's a serious thing."

He noted that the Pentagon already gives Congress regular classified updates on the status of Iraq's security forces, among hundreds of other reports every year. He suggested that the Senate vote was simply an extension of that process.

Republicans who voted against the measure said they worried that it would be perceived as a sign of weakness and would embolden terrorists who hope the United States grows weary of the war.

"This Congress cannot feed that hope, and I'm afraid that's what that amendment was doing," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051115 BUSH approval

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