US Republicans are increasingly backing a new approach in the Iraq war that could become the party's mantra come September. It would mean narrowly limited missions for US troops in Iraq but let US President George W. Bush decide when troops should leave.
So far, the idea has not attracted the attention of Democratic leaders. They are under substantial pressure by anti-war groups to consider only legislation that orders troops from Iraq.
But the limited missions approach quickly is becoming the attractive alternative for Republican lawmakers who want to challenge Bush on the unpopular war without backtracking from their past assertions that it would be disastrous to set deadlines for troop withdrawals.
"This is a necessary adjustment in the national debate to reintroduce bipartisanship, to stop the `gotcha' politics that are going on that seem to be driven by fringes on both sides and change the terms of the discussion," Republican Representative Phil English said.
English is among the more than 40 Republicans in the House and Senate who are sponsoring legislation intended to shift the mission of US troops.
A few other Republican lawmakers, facing tight elections next year and a strong anti-war sentiment in their districts, say they are considering this approach.
"Settling Sunni-Shiite rivalries over who occupies what street in Baghdad is not in the vital interest of the United States," said Republican Representative Heather Wilson, who said she is considering her options. "And we should only have Americans in harms' way where there are US interests at stake."
Bush's top military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is expected to tell Congress in September that more time is needed to determine whether a massive US-led security push initiated in January is working.
The message is unlikely to be well received on Capitol Hill.
Many of the Republicans, long on record as opposing an end date for combat, say it makes sense to focus on the mission instead. Yet this approach would amount to a de facto mandate for troop withdrawals because of the large number of forces assigned to combat missions.
The goal, they say, is to end the US-led daily patrols in the streets of Baghdad and restrict troops to fighting al-Qaeda terrorists and training Iraqi security forces.
"If you do that you've greatly reduced the loss of life, which is what matters most," Representative Mike Castle said.
The idea of forcing such a change gained prominence last December when the bipartisan Iraq Study Group concluded Bush should do more to hand over the combat mission to Iraqi forces.
The bipartisan commission envisioned an ambitious and new diplomatic push, with US troops remaining in the region primarily to supply and train the Iraqi army and to target terrorist cells.
Since then, some 40 Republicans and 31 Democrats have signed on to legislation by Representative Mark Udall and Senator Ken Salazar, both Democrats, that urges Bush to embrace the commission's recommendations.
A much smaller, though growing number of Republicans supports requiring that Bush submit to Congress a detailed, new military strategy to change the mission of US troops.
In the past week, Castle and English agreed to co-sponsor the legislation by Democratic Representatives Neil Abercrombie and John Tanner.
Two senior Republican senators -- John Warner and Richard Lugar -- have proposed similar legislation.
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