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Lugar urges Bush to change course soon in Iraq

Story Highlights

• Senator: Avoid further damage to military readiness, long-term national security
• Republican sounds pessimistic note on prospects for internal political progress
• Lugar is ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican support for President Bush's Iraq war policy suffered a significant crack Monday evening when Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana urged the president to change course in Iraq "very soon."

The well-respected GOP voice on foreign affairs took to the Senate floor to urge Bush to avoid further damage to America's military readiness and long-term national security.

"Our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond. Our continuing absorption with military activities in Iraq is limiting our diplomatic assertiveness there and elsewhere in the world," he said. (Watch Lugar ask President Bush to change course on Iraq Video)

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sounded a pessimistic note on the prospects for internal political progress in Iraq.

He said he sees "no convincing evidence that Iraqis will make the compromises necessary to solidify a functioning government and society, even if we reduce violence to a point that allows for some political and economic normalcy."

The senator said continuing military operations in Iraq were putting a damaging level of stress on U.S. forces, "taking a toll on recruitment and readiness."

"The window during which we can continue to employ American troops in Iraqi neighborhoods without damaging our military strength, or our ability to respond to other national security priorities, is closing," he said. "The United States military remains the strongest fighting force in the world, but we have to be mindful that it is not indestructible."

Lugar also said he believes the chances for success of Bush's strategy of boosting troop levels in Iraq to try to get the security situation there under control is "very limited within the short period framed by our own domestic political debate."

"The costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved," Lugar said. "Persisting indefinitely with the 'surge' strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests in the long term."

Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, said on Sunday that he was seeing "momentum" in the conflict.

"I feel like we are building some momentum over here -- momentum of change, both within the government of Iraq and on the ground. But we'll see. That could change very quickly," he told CNN.

And Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, said Sunday that setting a deadline for withdrawing forces "would put our troops more in harm's way."

"We cannot look like we are just putting our tail between our legs and going home without regard to the promises we've made, the commitments we've made. Should we push the Iraqi government? Absolutely," she told CNN.

'Downsizing and redeployment'

A Lugar aide told CNN that in January, during a meeting with Bush and Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, Lugar privately expressed his doubts about the troop buildup, but he had not gone public with his misgivings until Monday.

Despite his call for a course change, Lugar said he did not support calls by some Democrats for a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which he said "also fails to meet our security interests."

Rather, he said a "downsizing and redeployment of United States military forces to more sustainable positions" -- in rural locations of Iraq, Kurdish areas or possibly Kuwait -- might better serve American security interests.

Lugar also warned the president that failing to pay heed to domestic political opposition to the war, especially with a presidential campaign approaching, would result in contentiousness that would "greatly increase the chances for a poorly planned withdrawal from Iraq, or possibly the broader Middle East region, that could damage United States interests for decades."

"The president and some of his advisers may be tempted to pursue the 'surge' strategy to the end of his administration, but such a course contains extreme risks for United States national security," Lugar said. "The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for political operations in Iraq."

"A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy in Iraq. If the president waits until the presidential election campaign is in full swing, the intensity of confrontation on Iraq is likely to limit [options]," he said.

While a handful of other Republican senators have broken with the Bush administration over Iraq, Lugar's call for a course change -- which his spokesman, Andy Fisher, said was "months in the making, weeks in writing" -- is likely to have particular resonance, given his stature as one of the party's elder statesmen on foreign policy.

The six-term senator, a former Navy intelligence officer, was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee from 1985 to 1987 and again from 2003 until earlier this year, when Republicans lost their Senate majority.

He also hails from the normally bedrock Republican state of Indiana, where Democrats made inroads in midterm elections last year amid public unhappiness over the war.

A Lugar aide told CNN that the senator gave Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and some of his other colleagues notice that he was going to speak critically about the Iraq war.

After Lugar finished his remarks, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and a sharp critic of the war, praised his Indiana colleague's "thoughtful, sincere and honest" speech, which Durbin said was in "finest tradition of the U.S. Senate."

"I would urge colleagues on both sides of the aisle to step back from the debate on Iraq, take an inventory of where we are, take an honest appraisal and move forward," Durbin said. "I think it is the starting point for a meaningful debate, a debate that looks at the conflict in a realistic way."

Sen. Richard Lugar calls for "downsizing and redeployment of United States military forces."


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


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