WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq ran into a wall of criticism on Capitol Hill yesterday as administration officials drew confrontational, sometimes mocking challenges from both Democrats and Republicans.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in response that the administration might abandon the increase if the Iraqi government doesn’t do its part, but he provided no timetable. “I think most of us, in our minds, are thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

Bush and top members of his national security team sought to rally support for the troop buildup a day after he unveiled his plan for turning around a conflict that has lasted nearly four years and cost more than 3,000 American military lives.

Instead, Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found themselves embroiled in the first pitched exchanges in a battle that is likely to dominate Congress for months or longer and is already shaping the 2008 presidential election.

“I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out,” Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a potential 2008 presidential contender, told Rice. While he is a Republican, administration officials were defending the plan for the first time to the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) noted his own past support for the administration on the war but said he could not continue. He declared, “I have not been told the truth over and over again by administration witnesses, and the American people have not been told the truth.”

A new AP-Ipsos poll found approval for Bush’s handling of Iraq hovering near a record low – 29 percent of Americans approve and 68 percent disapprove.

Bush, visiting with troops at Fort Benning, Ga., cautioned that the troop increase “is not going to yield immediate results. It’s going to take awhile.”

His plan, outlined in a prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday, would raise troop levels in Iraq by 21,500 – from 132,000 to 153,500 – at a cost of $5.6 billion. It also calls for the Iraqi government to increase its own forces and to do more to quell sectarian violence

“American patience is limited, and obviously if the Iraqis fail to maintain their commitments we’ll have to revisit our strategy,” said Gates.

At one point Gates, just three weeks on the job, told lawmakers, “I would confess I’m no expert on Iraq.” Later, asked about reaching the right balance between American and Iraqi forces, he told the panel he was “no expert on military matters.”

Committee members pressed Gates, who replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, on an exit strategy for the U.S.

“At the outset of the strategy, it’s a mistake to talk about an exit strategy,” he said.

Gates, in testimony to the committee and earlier at a news conference, said he was requesting increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops over the next five years.

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