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Warner's Iraq Proposal Roils White House

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ANNE FLAHERTY | August 24, 2007 06:32 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Sen. John Warner's suggestion that some troops leave Iraq by the end of the year has roiled the White House, with administration officials saying they've asked the influential Republican to clarify that he has not broken politically with President Bush.

But Warner said Friday that he stands by his remarks and that he did not object to how his views have been characterized.

"I'm not going to issue any clarification," Warner, R-Va., said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I don't think any clarification is needed."

The political wrangling comes as the White House and Congress are headed toward a showdown on the Iraq war. Next month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to update Congress on the results of Bush's decision earlier this year to send 30,000 additional troops to Iraq.

Congressional Republicans have grown increasingly uneasy about the unpopular war and many say they want to see substantial gains by September or will consider calling for a new strategy, including possibly forcing Bush to draw down troops.

Warner, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and Navy secretary during the Vietnam War, is seen as someone who could tip the debate in a Senate narrowly split on the issue.

Following his trip to Iraq this month, which included a two-hour meeting with Petraeus, Warner said time has run out on the Baghdad government and Bush should make good on his word that the U.S. commitment was not open-ended by announcing a pullout of troops this fall.

The symbolic gesture, he said, could amount to as few as 5,000 of the 160,000 troops in Iraq being brought home by Christmas. The goal would be to pressure Iraqi leaders to make the political compromises necessary to tamp down sectarian violence.

Warner's remarks were significant. While he said he would still oppose Democratic legislation ordering troop withdrawals, it was the first time he had embraced pulling troops out by a certain date. It also put him at odds with the president by rejecting Bush's long-held assertion that only security conditions on the ground should dictate deployments and that any announced redeployments would be an unhelpful broadcast of war plans to the enemy.

Before stepping before the television cameras, Warner met with Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the president's chief adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After Warner made his ideas public _ and attracted headlines suggesting he had effectively broken with the president on the war _ White House officials said they reached out to Warner's staff and asked him to clarify his position.

According to an administration official, Warner's staff agreed that his views were being portrayed incorrectly as splitting with the president. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the private conversations, said Warner's office asserted his staff would deal with it.

However, in the AP interview, Warner said he personally had not been asked to revise his comments and he had no problem with how his views were reported. Asked whether he had indeed split with Bush on Iraq, he declined to say and said his remarks speak for themselves.

"You have to surmise that on your own," he said.

Warner's comments also drew reaction Friday from GOP colleagues known for their steadfast allegiance to Bush on the war.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., issued a statement saying that efforts to pre-empt Petraeus' September review were "premature and irresponsible." Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, "It's a little curious to me that people are proposing a change in strategy when in fact the current strategy appears now to be working."

Likewise, the U.S. military commander in one of the more troubled areas of Iraq said Friday that embracing Warner's call to begin withdrawing troops before the end of the year would be "a giant step backward." Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of troops south of Baghdad, said that under such a scenario, militants pushed from his sector in recent operations would quickly return.

The swift reaction undercuts any suggestion that Warner _ known for his caution and party loyalty, as well as his expertise on national security issues _ might have been paving the way for Bush to announce his own plan to withdraw troops.

Warner, who has not announced whether he will run for re-election next year, said he spoke on his own behalf. He also said he was unconcerned about any political fallout and didn't want to wait until mid-September to speak out because by then Bush may have made up his mind.

"I've always said politics be damned," he said. "This thing is too important ... . I simply view my effort as a way of putting out one option that could _ I repeat could _ help the situation."

Administration officials say Bush is still consulting with Petraeus and has not made any final decisions. But Bush's options may be limited by the strain on ground forces.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Friday denied a Los Angeles Times report that he will advise Bush in September to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq by almost half, to below 100,000.

Initially Pace's office issued a statement calling the report "purely speculative," but later more directly denied it.

"The story is wrong. I have not decided on, nor made, any recommendations yet," Pace said.

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Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Robert Burns in Washington, and Ben Feller in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.