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Sen. Clinton seeks cap on troop levels in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Just back from Iraq and facing doubters in her own party, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., on Wednesday opposed President Bush's plan to send more troops and offered an alternative that stops short of an immediate withdrawal or cutting funds.

Instead, Clinton called for capping U.S. troop deployments in Iraq at Jan. 1 levels, beginning soon to move them out of Baghdad and eventually redeploying forces to Afghanistan. She also stressed that Iraq's government must meet benchmarks for political progress before it gets more U.S. aid.

Despite Clinton's stiffened posture on Iraq, the war remains a political burden for her as she weighs a 2008 run for the presidency. The Democratic Party base is staunchly anti-war and displeased that she has never rejected her October 2002 vote to authorize the war. While she's voicing greater opposition to Bush's war leadership, she's not as fervently anti-war as some of her rivals for the 2008 Democratic nomination.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for one, toughened his position Wednesday. Early in the day, he said in an interview that he might not submit his own anti-war legislation if plans from his colleagues sufficed. But as Clinton's afternoon news conference wound down, Obama's staff issued a news release saying that he opposes Bush's plan, favors capping the number of troops in Iraq and would introduce legislation to begin a phased troop withdrawal, perhaps by March.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, another Democratic candidate for 2008, has repented his 2002 vote to authorize the war and calls for withdrawing as many as 50,000 troops immediately.

Clinton's announcement Wednesday didn't immediately appease anti-war activists. "She's saying the right things; the question will be, does she support Congress using the powers it has to put the measures she's talking about into effect?" said Tom Mattzie, the Washington director of the liberal group MoveOn.org. "It's not sufficient to oppose. You've got to work to stop the president. We'll wait and see."

But some independent analysts thought Clinton's centrist stand might appeal to a broader base of Democrats and independents.

Clinton "had to begin taking a position that can get her good ratings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. But "she also understands there's a lot of military families and others who are Democrats who don't just want to see Iraq abandoned.

"I don't know politically if it will work," he said. "The liberal wing wants raw meat. It may actually be an honest effort by her to say, `How can we get this wrapped up?'''

At a packed afternoon news conference, Clinton, who had advertised parts of her plan on morning television and radio shows, declared: "We have to change course."

She said that U.S. forces in Iraq should be redeployed to Afghanistan, where they could make a difference: "The president's team is pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq as it edges closer to collapse, and Afghanistan needs more of our concerted effort and attention."

But she said she's not willing to cut off funding for the troops yet, in part because she thinks there are national security interests at risk. She also expressed uncertainty that her plan will win enough votes.

Much like the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group last month, Clinton's plan would pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to meet benchmarks for political progress before it can receive additional U.S. funds. The Iraqi government should decide how to allocate oil revenues among all factions, disarm sectarian militias and let former Baath Party members resume civilian work as teachers, nurses and the like, she said.

Her proposal also draws on ideas that other Democrats have promoted: requiring congressional approval for future troop increases and cutting off money for private contractors and Iraqi security forces if conditions aren't met.

Bob Mulholland, an adviser to the California Democratic Party, said of Clinton, Obama and Edwards—widely considered the three early Democratic front-runners for 2008—"I think all three will end up being seen as very similar as far as Iraq. I don't think it's going to help a candidate to say `She voted for the Iraq war four years ago and I didn't.' Good luck with that. It's what you want to do now."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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