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First phase of Iraq war plan to begin early February

Story Highlights

• Defense chief: First U.S., Iraqi brigades in place by first week in February
• Sen. Chuck Hagel says Iraq plan could be dangerous foreign policy blunder
• Sen. Barbara Boxer asks Condoleezza Rice, "Who pays the price?"
• Sen. Russ Feingold suggests cutting funding to force troop withdrawal
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified on Friday that the first phase of President Bush's new Iraq war plan will begin around the first week in February.

Gates is appearing for a second time this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in the wake of Bush's announcement that he wants to increase U.S. troops in Iraq by more than 20,000.

The first of a planned five additional U.S. brigades in Iraq should be in place by the middle of this month, according to Gates, who last month replaced the embattled Donald Rumsfeld.

Iraqi troops are also part of the plan, and the first Iraqi brigade will move into Baghdad "around the first of February," Gates said.

"The operation itself will probably begin with some seriousness around the first week in February."

Several Republican lawmakers have come out against the Bush plan. (Watch Democrats and Republicans slam Bush plan Video)

Gates said he would not recommend the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq if Bush's new strategy fails to work.

"If we talk about the consequences of American failure and defeat in Iraq, then saying, 'If you don't do this, we'll leave -- and we'll leave now,' does not strike me as being in the national interest of the United States," Gates said.

"So the question would be: 'What different kind of strategy might we be able to come up with that would have some prospect of avoiding a failure or a defeat in Iraq?'"

Bush huddles with GOP leaders

The president has invited Republican congressional leaders to join him at Camp David, Maryland, this weekend, two Republican sources told CNN.

Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Trent Lott of Mississippi and Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Roy Blunt of Missouri will be going to the presidential retreat Friday and will return Saturday, the sources said.

During his opening remarks Friday, Gates reported that his request to add 92,000 soldiers and Marines to the overall U.S. military would help "increase combat ability."

"While it may take some time for these troops to become available for deployment, it is important for our men and women in uniform to know that additional manpower and resources are on the way," he said.

'Foreign policy blunder'

On Thursday, in what was perhaps the strongest worded Senate opposition to Bush's plan so far, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska described the move as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out."

"I will resist it," Hagel said.

Hagel's comments during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sparked applause from the Senate gallery, where lawmakers were engaged in a heated debate with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also came to Capitol Hill to answer questions about the Iraq strategy.

Democrat Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois asked Rice: "The fundamental question the American people and, I think, every senator on this panel -- Republican and Democrat -- are having to face now is: At what point do we say 'enough?'

"What leverage do we have that would provide us some assurance that six months from now, you will not be sitting before us again saying, 'Well, it didn't work?' "

Rice replied, "The leverage is, we're not going to stay married to a plan that's not working in Baghdad."

She assured skeptical senators that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is up to the challenges he faces.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisconsin, so far is the only senator to suggest publicly that Congress cut off funds for the war and force the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, however, has said he intends to introduce a largely symbolic resolution next week expressing opposition to Bush's plan. (Watch why Reid says Bush is virtually standing alone Video)

McConnell has said he would seek to block such a move. He has not said whether he has the votes to do so.

'Who pays the price?'

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, took the opportunity to point out that Rice, with no children of her own, will not feel the loss of a son or daughter in Iraq.

"Who pays the price?" Boxer asked Rice. "I'm not going to pay a personal price. My kids are too old and my grandchild is too young. You're not going to pay a personal price, as I understand it, with an immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families ... not me, not you."

Rice replied: "I fully understand the sacrifice that the American people are making, and especially the sacrifice that our soldiers are making, men and women in uniform. I visit them. I know what they're going through. I talk to their families. I see it."

Boxer interrupted: "Madam Secretary, please. I know you feel terrible about it. That's not the point. I was making the case as to who pays the price for your decisions.

"And the fact that this administration would move forward with this escalation with no clue as to the further price that we're going to pay militarily ... I find really appalling."

CNN's Ted Barrett, Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.


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Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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