WASHINGTON -- One of Congress' most hawkish Democrats called Thursday for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, sparking bitter and personal salvos from both sides in a growing Capitol Hill uproar over President Bush's war policies.
"It's time to bring them home," said Rep. John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, choking back tears during remarks to reporters. "Our military has accomplished its mission and done its duty."
The comments by the Pennsylvania lawmaker, who has spent three decades in the House, hold particular weight because he is close to many military commanders and has enormous credibility with his colleagues on defense issues. He voted for the war in 2002, and remains the top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
"Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence," he said.
In a biting response, Republicans criticized Murtha's position as one of abandonment and surrender and accused Democrats of playing politics with the war and recklessly pushing a "cut and run" strategy.
"They want us to retreat. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
"It would be an absolute mistake and a real insult to the lives that have been lost," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
Just two days earlier, the GOP-controlled Senate defeated a Democratic push to force Bush to lay out a timetable for withdrawal. Spotlighting mushrooming questions from both parties about the war, though, the chamber approved a statement that 2006 should be a significant year in which conditions are created for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Murtha estimated that all U.S. troops could be pulled out within six months. He introduced a resolution Thursday that would force the president to call back the military, but it was unclear when, or if, either GOP-run chamber of Congress would vote on it.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stopped short of endorsing Murtha's position, even though he's one of her close advisers. Her counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, said, "I favor what the Senate did," referring to the statement the Senate adopted.
Thursday's rhetorical dueling came in a week that had already seen Bush and other top administration officials lash out at war critics, who they say advocate a strategy that will only embolden the insurgency.
Some Senate Democrats have already laid out plans for bringing home U.S. troops. Other House Democrats have called for the military to pull out, but none has Murtha's clout on military issues.
With a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, Murtha retired from the Marine Corps reserves as a colonel in 1990 after 37 years as a Marine, only a few years longer than he's been in Congress.
Elected in 1974, Murtha has become known as an authority on national security whose advice was sought out by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
Murtha's shift from an early war backer to a critic advocating withdrawal reflects plummeting public support for a war that has cost more than $200 billion and led to the deaths of more than 2,000 U.S. troops.
Known as a friend and champion of officers at the Pentagon and in the war zone, it is widely believed in Congress that Murtha often speaks for those in uniform and could be echoing what U.S. commanders in the field and in the Pentagon are saying privately about the conflict.
Murtha, who normally shuns the spotlight, said he was spoke out because he has grown increasingly troubled by the war and has a constitutional and moral obligation to speak for the troops.
But Republicans said Murtha does not represent the views of U.S. troops or military leaders.
"This falloff of support among Democratic ranks is not shared by the war-fighting forces. It's not shared by our troops," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Several times a year, Murtha travels to Iraq to assess the war on the ground and he often visits wounded troops in hospitals at home. And he sometimes just calls up generals to get firsthand accounts.
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," Murtha said. "It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."
His voice cracked and tears filled his eyes as he related stories of one of his visits to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
One man, he said, was blinded and lost both his hands but had been denied a Purple Heart because friendly fire caused his injuries.
"I met with the commandant. I said, 'If you don't give him a Purple Heart, I'll give him one of mine.' And they gave him a Purple Heart," said Murtha, who has two.