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WASHINGTON — Sen. John Kerry on Wednesday proposed the withdrawal of 20,000 U.S. troops from Iraq after the December elections, calling it a responsible exit strategy.

“To those who suggest we should withdraw all troops immediately — I say ‘No,’” he said in prepared remarks for a speech at Georgetown University in Washington. “A precipitous withdrawal would invite civil and regional chaos and endanger our own security.

“But to those who rely on the overly simplistic phrase ‘We will stay as long as it takes’ … I also say – ‘No.’ That will only lead us into a quagmire.”

Kerry, who lost the presidential race to George Bush in 2004, also said the bulk of American forces should be out of Iraq by the end of 2006, and that the full withdrawal must be implemented piece-by-piece and tied to clear benchmarks of political achievements in that country.

“These are the make-or-break months for Iraq,” he said. “The president must take a new course and hold Iraqis accountable. If the president still refuses, Congress must insist on a change in policy.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, unveiled a similar withdrawal plan, removing one U.S. brigade for every three Iraqi security brigades that are rated “level 1,” or fully independent.

He also called for more resources to help train the Iraqi forces, including advisory teams of top U.S. troops whose expertise can better educate the inexperienced soldiers.

Also on Tuesday, in comments at the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives’ Luncheon, President Bush called plans for an early withdrawal from Iraq “dangerous,” saying it would make the entire world less safe.

“This enemy considers every retreat of the civilized world as an invitation to greater violence,” he said. “In Iraq, there is no peace without victory — and we will keep our nerve and we will win that victory.”

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