(AP Photo/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Mike Haskey)
The day after President Bush unveiled his plan to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, the president was robustly applauded and cheered. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates got pounded.
Bush went to Fort Benning, Ga., and was surrounded with soldiers in camouflage shouting "hooah, hooah." Rice and Gates went to Capitol Hill to defend Bush's decision -- and encountered stinging criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.
The president's strategy for a troop buildup, which polls show is deeply unpopular among Americans, was "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam," Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska told Rice.
Rice testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning, then the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon. Gates, joined by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee.
(AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
And while Gates -- only on the job three weeks -- was treated a bit more gently than Rice, the reception they received underscored the degree of congressional opposition to Bush's plan.
Gates said that the administration might abandon the increase if the Iraqi government didn't do its part, but he provided no timetable. "I think most of us, in our minds, are thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years," he testified.
Bush and top members of his national security team sought to rally support for the troop buildup a day after he unveiled his plan for turning around a conflict that has lasted nearly four years and cost more than 3,000 American military lives.
Instead, Gates and Rice found themselves embroiled in the first pitched exchanges in a battle likely to dominate Congress for months or longer and is already shaping the 2008 presidential election.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In Fort Benning, Bush cautioned that the troop increase "is not going to yield immediate results. It's going to take awhile."
His plan, outlined in a prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday, would raise troop levels in Iraq by 21,500 -- from 132,000 to 153,500 -- at a cost of $5.6 billion. It also calls for the Iraqi government to increase its own forces and to do more to quell sectarian violence
Gates, in testimony to the committee and earlier at a news conference, said he was requesting increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops over the next five years.
He also said the Pentagon would recall to duty sooner than planned some National Guard and Reserve troops who have served yearlong tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
As Rice testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., likened Bush's plan to a "hail Maliki pass" -- jokingly combining Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's name with the football "Hail Mary" desperation pass.
Bush's war effort initially had strong support, both in Congress and among other Americans. Yet that support has eroded as violence has continued.
Opposition to buildup
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hoped to bring up a nonbinding resolution next week expressing opposition to any troop buildup. A similar move is expected in the House.
Reid, in a Senate speech, said Bush ignored the results of November's midterm elections that ended 12 years of GOP control of Congress, the advice of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and that of his own top generals. "In choosing to escalate the war, the president virtually stands alone," Reid said.
The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, threatened a filibuster -- a delaying tactic -- to block any legislation expressing disapproval of the buildup plan.
McConnell conceded that GOP lawmakers as well as Democrats are troubled by Bush's new policy, but he said, "Congress is completely incapable of dictating the tactics of the war."
Options for critics of the war to try forcing its end are limited, given the slim margin of Democratic control, especially in the Senate. But votes stating symbolic opposition to the troop buildup could embarrass many Republicans leery of supporting Bush's plan.
Rice appeared in the morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the afternoon before the House counterpart. She was grilled sharply by members of both parties.
Not a single member of the Senate panel expressed outright support for the president's plan. One after another offered skepticism on various points -- from the rationale for the war to al-Maliki's sincerity and resolve, from the need for additional troops to the administration's ruling out talking to Iran and Syria.
"You're going to have to do a much better job" explaining the rationale for the war, "and so is the president," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. He said Bush could no longer count on his support for the war.
Rice acknowledged widespread skepticism among Americans. "I want you to know that I understand and indeed feel the heartbreak that Americans feel at the continued sacrifice of American lives," she said.
Rice engaged several tense exchanges with members, including with Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and longtime critic of Bush's Iraq policy. She disputed his characterization of Bush's buildup as an "escalation."
"Putting in 22,000 more troops is not an escalation?" Hagel asked. Responded Rice: "I think, senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in."
"Would you call it a decrease?" Hagel asked.
"I would call it, senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad," she said.
When Rice disputed Hagel's contention that Iraq was in the throes of civil war, Hagel shot back: "To sit there and say that, that's just not true."
Said Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware: "I believe the president's strategy is not a solution, Secretary Rice. I believe it's a tragic mistake"
Rice told senators there was a "national imperative not to fail."
The Senate panel was flush with 2008 presidential hopefuls and possible contenders, including Hagel, Biden and Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another presidential hopeful, said after a meeting at the White House that he was concerned about al-Maliki's capabilities as well as "whether these are sufficient number of troops.
But, he said, "I do think we can succeed." McCain is among a handful of lawmakers who have called for more -- not fewer -- U.S. troops in Iraq.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Jennifer Loven, Lolita C. Baldor and Barry Schweid contributed to this report.