Sen. Tester calls for firm Iraq withdrawal

Associated Press

by Matt Gouras

HELENA – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, strengthening his stance on the war in Iraq, said Tuesday the Obama administration needs to stick with a scheduled withdrawal of the 45,000-strong force by December.

The Montana Democrat's comments come amid reports that the administration is looking at a proposal to leave up to 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq next year to train Iraqi forces. No formal proposal on the matter has yet been made to Congress.

Tester said in a speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate that the administration needs to abandon any plan to keep a sizeable force in place after the end of the year.

"Today, I am sending a letter to the president calling on him to stand by his commitment to pull all U.S. Operation New Dawn troops out of Iraq by the end of this year," Tester said. "We should bring the last of them home on schedule."

Tester's speech comes as his re-election bid begins to heat up. He is being challenged by Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in a race many expect will be among the most watched in the nation.

Rehberg has stuck by his vote to authorize force in 2002, and while President Bush was in office he voted against a Democratic resolution opposing a buildup of troops in Iraq. Rehberg has since said a failed government in Iraq would pose a threat to national security.

Rehberg's indicated in a statement Tuesday that he is willing to leave strategy decisions to the Pentagon.

"I'm always a little wary of politicians in Washington, D.C., second-guessing America's commanders on the ground and trying to arm-chair quarterback our military strategy," Rehberg said. "It's our responsibility to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the resources, including manpower, they need to do their job as safely as possible and return home quickly."

Tester pointed out that more than 4,000 troops have so far been killed in the war, 32,000 wounded and the cost is approaching $1 trillion. And he said the war was started by political leaders looking for weapons that never existed.

He said the U.S. can no longer "referee a centuries-old civil war" that is not likely to end anytime soon. Tester said taxpayers should not be asked to keep paying for it.

The Obama administration is still weighing options for extending its military training role in an Iraq still plagued by violence, according to reports. Under a 2008 security agreement all troops are to depart Iraq by Dec. 31, a withdrawal process that has already begun.

U.S. military officials have said that Iraq's security forces have improved, but still are not able to fully defend Iraq.

Tester has sought a quick end to the war in Iraq since his 2006 election campaign, although anti-war activists who supported Tester felt he was not forceful enough on the issue after his election.

In 2007, Tester announced that he felt the original goals of the Iraq war had either been met or determined to be without merit. He has since asked for an orderly plan to remove the troops.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, also a Montana Democrat, has previously said his vote to authorize the war was a mistake based on faulty intelligence delivered to Congress. Baucus, whose nephew was killed while deployed in Iraq, has said in the years since that the troops should come home as soon as possible.

After Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, Baucus was quick to also call for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Tester upped the ante Tuesday with a direct message for the president.

"Despite this year's deadline, I know there's talk of possibly keeping a sizeable force of U.S. troops in Iraq through next year. If that's the case, it's not good," Tester said. "We cannot afford moving the goal post. Across Montana, and this nation, people are saying: Come home and come home now."