Coleman said during his 30-minute conference call that he will not support any plans that call for an immediate troop withdrawal in Iraq. He did say he wanted to see a significant change in military strategy by next year but stressed that he expects U.S. troops to remain a part of that strategy.
"We will have a long-term presence in Iraq, but with a change in mission," he said.
Coleman called it "irresponsible" to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq. He said doing so would cause a civil war, would allow terrorists to establish operations in Iraq, and would give neighbor Iran greater influence in Iraq.
Coleman said he understands the public frustration with the war, but he won't vote for anything that he believes would cause greater harm to the United States. At the same time, Coleman said the Iraqi government and Iraqi troops have to take a greater role in securing the country.
"The principals are not setting a fixed timetable for withdrawal, but firmly believing that there will be a significant draw-down in troops at some point next year," he said. "Making sure that there is ultimately a change of mission. We will not be fighting in the streets of Baghdad next year. Either the Iraqis will be able to take care of themselves or we'll be watching some difficult things going on, but our troops cannot continue to be in the middle of that."
Coleman wasn't specific on what would constitute a "significant" draw-down in troops. When asked to explain what he meant by a "long-term presence" in Iraq, Coleman described how U.S. troops have been in South Korea and Germany for decades but weren't involved in direct combat. He said the U.S. and other countries have a strategic interest in making sure that the Middle East is stabilized.
Coleman's comments come on the same day that a Bush administration report cited mixed results for the Iraqi government in meeting political, military and economic goals. President Bush said he would listen to his commanders in the field and would not support a troop withdrawal.
Congress is currently debating plans to withdraw U.S. troops by next spring. Anti-war groups and Democrats have been lobbying Coleman to support the legislation, hitting the airwaves with TV ads.
Coleman said the commercials won't have an impact on his decisions. He added that when he's up for re-election next year, time will prove him right.
But the situation in Iraq has put him in the political hot seat. Coleman has been a strong supporter of the war since he took office in 2003, but he started questioning President Bush's war strategy late last year. He also voted against the president's plan to increase troops in Iraq earlier this year.
Public opinion polls show an American public growing more and more dissatisfied with the conditions in the country. Coleman has to balance the concerns of voters who want an end to the war with those who think a troop withdrawal is a sign of weakness.
Minnesota Public Radio News talked with two people who voted for Coleman when he was first elected in 2002.
Arden Hills resident Ken Yeager, who describes himself as a "centrist," says he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq and hopes Coleman starts moving in that direction.
"I think at the right time Norm Coleman will support getting out of Iraq," he said. "He's a realist, he's a pragmatist and eventually it will dawn on him that we should leave."
Yeager says Coleman's decision on the war will play a factor in his vote in 2008.
David McGuire of Owatonna says he will vote for Coleman no matter what. McGuire, a Republican, says he wants Coleman to follow the instructions of military commanders in Iraq, not Democrats in the Senate.
"We need to see what Gen. Petreaus has to say because he is the commander on the ground, not the senators in their Senate offices in Washington. They're totally clueless. They have an agenda. They want to hurt the president," McGuire said.
Coleman will get firsthand accounts of the situation in Iraq on Monday. He said he will meet with Minnesota National Guard members who have just returned from Iraq.
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