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INSIDE POLITICS
Iraq Transition

White House: Murtha's call is 'surrender'

Democratic hawk: U.S. must leave Iraq

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Senior Democrat Rep. John Murtha on Thursday called the war in Iraq "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."

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Rep. John Murtha

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House accused a senior House Democrat -- and a decorated Vietnam veteran -- who called for a swift withdrawal from Iraq of advocating surrender, comparing him to anti-war filmmaker Michael Moore.

In a broadside issued Thursday night, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said that it is "baffling that [Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party."

McClellan called Murtha, a retired Marine colonel who earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, "a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting America."

But McClellan added, "The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists."

A senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha had supported the resolution that authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But Thursday he called the Bush administration's management of the conflict "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," and said the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is "uniting the enemy against us." (Watch Murtha's take on 'flawed policy wrapped in illusion' -- 8:11)

"It's time to bring the troops home," he said, noting that a withdrawal would take about six months to complete. (Read more on his statement)

He also took a swipe at Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush, who have accused Democratic critics of playing politics during a war.

"I like guys who've never been there who criticize us who've been there," Murtha said. "I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and sent people to war and then don't like to hear suggestions that what may need to be done."

Cheney avoided military service during the 1960's Vietnam era with a series of draft deferments, and Bush served stateside in the National Guard during Vietnam.

Murtha was wounded twice in Vietnam.

White House Counselor Dan Bartlett called Murtha's position "out of the mainstream of his own party," and said that "immediate withdrawal would be, as one general on the ground put it, a recipe for disaster."

Bartlett also called Murtha's reference to Cheney's draft deferments "unfair" and "beside the point," noting there is a long list of wartime presidents who served ably without military experience.

Not all Democrats are lining up behind Murtha.

Fellow veteran Sen. John Kerry, who also voted for the Iraq resolution, disagrees with Murtha's call for a swift withdrawal, arguing instead for a phased withdrawal linked "to the success of the election."

But Kerry, who lost to Bush in last year's election, blasted the administration, saying that it was engaging in scare tactics by equating criticism of the war to encouraging the insurgency. (Read interview)

Nearly 2,100 American troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- a war that top U.S. officials said was needed to strip Iraq of illicit stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and efforts to produce a nuclear bomb.

No such weapons have turned up since Hussein's government collapsed in April 2003.

Divide over the war

Public support for the conflict has dropped sharply over the last few months. Only 35 percent of those surveyed in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll published Monday supported the Bush administration's handling of the conflict, and 54 percent said the invasion was a mistake.

The poll also found that 19 percent of Americans want to see the troops come home now, and 33 percent said they wanted them home within a year. Only 38 percent said they should remain "as long as needed."

Republicans in the House said the United States was making progress in the conflict, with Iraqis voting in October to ratify a new constitution and elections for a permanent parliament scheduled in December.

"I think that the Democrats who have undertaken this initiative have made a mistake," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "I think they've underestimated the toughness of the American people and the understanding that if we don't change the world, the world is going to change us."

Hunter, whose son currently serves in the Marines, said U.S. troops should leave only when, "in the judgment of the war-fighting commanders, Iraqis are capable of defending their own country."

CNN's Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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