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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a vote by House Democrats Thursday, likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will back prominent Iraq war critic John Murtha over her current deputy for majority leader in the Democratic-led Congress.
In a letter released by Murtha's office on Sunday, Pelosi told the Pennsylvania congressman that his surprise call for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2005 "changed the national debate and helped make Iraq the central issue of this historic election."
"Your leadership gave so many Americans, including respected military leaders, the encouragement to voice their own disapproval at a failed policy that weakens our military and makes stability in that region even more difficult to achieve," she wrote.
Pelosi, the San Francisco congresswoman who currently serves as House minority leader, is expected to become speaker when the new Congress meets in January.
Shortly after Democrats claimed control of the House of Representatives in last week's elections, Murtha re-launched a previously announced bid to seek the majority leader's post. It was a challenge to Steny Hoyer, the current Democratic whip.(Watch analysis of Pelosi challenges in the new Congress -- 2:12 )
Hoyer, of Maryland, said Sunday in a written statement that Pelosi's endorsement of his rival was no surprise.
But he predicted he would win the job.
"Nancy told me some time ago that she would personally support Jack," Hoyer said. "I respect her decision, as the two are very close. I am grateful for the support I have from my colleagues, and have the majority of the caucus supporting me. I look forward to working with Speaker Pelosi as majority leader."
Hoyer, from suburban Washington, has been minority whip since 2002.
A former Marine colonel with close ties to the military, Murtha stunned much of Washington when he called for a swift U.S. pullout a year ago.
He is the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees military spending and supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but declared the war had no military solution.
He said he wanted to avoid "another Vietnam."
"I am deeply gratified to receive the support of Speaker Pelosi, a tireless advocate for change and a true leader for our party and our country," Murtha said in a statement accompanying Pelosi's letter.
"Last Tuesday, the American people spoke and the message could not be clearer: We need a new direction," he said.
Hoyer opposed Murtha's call to withdraw American troops from Iraq within six months, warning that a swift pullout "could lead to disaster."
But Hoyer has joined Democratic calls for President Bush to change course in the unpopular war, which has left more than 2,800 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, chairman of the Democratic caucus and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, last Tuesday said he would bid to be majority whip.
House Democrats have set November 16 as the date for elections for their new leadership. House Republicans will choose a leader the next day.
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