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Iraq Transition

Levin: Finish Iraq pullout before 2008

Democrats, Republicans jockey for election-year position on Iraq

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Sen. Carl Levin says "it's likely that there will be reductions in the coming months."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee said Tuesday he favors a phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq beginning by the end of 2006 and finishing by the end of 2007.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan made the comments after a briefing on the situation in Iraq with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said no such plans were discussed.

With midterm elections in November, leaders from both parties are mindful of the war's effect on voters.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is expected to offer an amendment this week to pull combat troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.

In the House, GOP lawmakers are expected to take up a resolution Thursday declaring that setting a date for withdrawal or redeployment of troops "is not in the national security interest of the United States."

Democrats insist that GOP playbook won't work.

"The ball on this is in the president's court no matter what congressional Republicans may try to do," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. "That's what the American people think."

Bush: Not 'too soon'

President Bush talked about his surprise visit to Iraq and U.S. troop strength there during a White House news conference on Wednesday.

"Our policy is stand- up, stand-down: As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down," Bush said. "But if we stand down too soon, it won't enable us to achieve our objectives." (Watch Bush describe his inspiring trip to Iraq --12:11)

"You know, one of the interesting debates from the outside community is troop levels," Bush said. "I've got people [who] say, 'You need to increase the number of forces. Now.' I've gotten people that say, 'Well, the role of the United States ought to be more indirect than it has been' -- in other words, in a supporting role.

"To those folks, I say, 'Look, I'm going to rely upon [U.S. military commander] Gen. [George] Casey.'

"I've had people come in and say, 'You better make sure that the Iraqi forces are well-tooled to do their job.' In other words, there's people who've gone over there and taken a hard look -- have felt like that the Iraqi forces were not equipped well enough to be able to stand up as we stand down," Bush said. (Transcript)

Support for the war among the American public has slid sharply as the U.S. death toll in the 3-year-old conflict approaches 2,500.

According to a CNN poll released Monday, 55 percent of Americans consider the invasion a mistake, though optimism about the conflict showed a slight climb after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's killing last week. (Full story)

For Democrats, appearing divided on Iraq could carry a political cost. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has been meeting behind closed doors with key Democratic senators to come up with legislation on which they can agree.

Some Democrats, notably Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, have been calling on the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces.

Last November, after Murtha said it was time to bring the troops home, House Republican leaders threw down a gauntlet to anti-war Democrats, proposing a resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal and challenging them to vote for it.

Democrats derided the maneuver as a political trap. After a contentious debate, the resolution was voted down 403 to 3.

On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi again stood behind Murtha's proposal.

"Congressman Jack Murtha had a plan and has a plan," Pelosi told a liberal conference in Washington called "Take Back America."

"And I want to say what that plan is, because it's been characterized in a way that is not accurate. Now, isn't that a surprise?

"Mr. Murtha, and I quote, says that 'the forces involved in Iraq should be deployed at the earliest practicable date.' That is not cut-and-run. That is at the earliest practical date," the California Democrat said.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, drew a mixture of jeers and cheers at the gathering when she rejected setting a date for withdrawal.

"I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government, nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain," Clinton said.

Speculation about troop reductions was heightened by comments Sunday by Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, and U.S. Gen. Casey.

In an interview on CNN, al-Rubaie predicted U.S. troop levels in Iraq would drop to fewer than 100,000 by the end of 2006, and he said most of the multinational forces in Iraq will have gone home by the end of 2007.

CNN's Dana Bash, Andrea Koppel and Deidre Walsh contributed to this report.

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