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Sessions withholds endorsement of Iraq troop plan

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions withheld his endorsement Tuesday on a Bush administration plan for keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq at least through next summer, saying Congress should take more time to determine the next steps for the war.

Sessions did not reject the proposal, outlined in Senate testimony this week, from Gen. David Petraeus. In a written statement, he praised Petraeus for improving conditions in Iraq and called it "critically important" that lawmakers respect the opinions of military commanders.

But he said there are no guarantees for future gains in Iraq and that "the progress that has been achieved has come at a high price."

"The situation remains difficult and complex," he said, "and Congress should carefully monitor the situation in the weeks to come."

In expressing his concerns, Sessions joined a number of GOP colleagues raising fresh skepticism about giving President Bush more time to turn things around after almost five years of war. But Sessions, from Mobile, broke with fellow Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and most of his other Southern Republican colleagues, who offered renewed support for the war as Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker presented the long-awaited progress report.

Sessions' office did not respond to phone calls Tuesday night seeking further comment on his position. But in remarks during the hearing and in his written statement, he suggested he might be seeking a political compromise, calling on Congress to establish a clear policy so that the country can "unite behind a strategy."

Moderate lawmakers have said recently that bipartisan proposals are being discussed.

In his testimony to the House and Senate this week, Petraeus said he envisions gradually withdrawing by next summer the 30,000 additional troops that President Bush sent to Iraq earlier this year as part of a military offensive to try to stabilize the country. That would leave U.S. force levels at about 130,000 by mid-2008 — roughly the same "pre-surge" number stationed there at the beginning of 2007.

Petraeus said it was too early to predict whether withdrawals could continue after that.

Sen. Shelby backed that approach, saying he was optimistic that the troop increase is showing results.

"The surge appears to be working and our troops' morale remains high," Shelby, from Tuscaloosa, said in a written statement.

"I will continue to listen to General Petraeus and the advice of our military commanders on the troop levels that are necessary to ensure we do not jeopardize our security gains ... however, we must remember there are limits to what our military can do and I remain deeply concerned about the Iraqis meeting their responsibility."

The majority of Alabama's delegation in the House, which received a similar report from Petraeus and Crocker on Monday, offered a similar reaction. Only Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, renewed his call for gradually ending the war.

Sessions is a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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