WASHINGTON -- A leading Republican senator and prospective presidential candidate said yesterday that the war in Iraq has destabilized the Middle East and is looking more like the Vietnam conflict from a generation ago.
Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who received two Purple Hearts and other military honors for his service in Vietnam, reiterated his position that the United States needs to develop a strategy to leave Iraq.
Hagel scoffed at the idea that US troops could be in Iraq four years from now at levels above 100,000, a contingency for which the Pentagon is preparing.
''We should start figuring out how we get out of there," Hagel said on ABC's ''This Week." ''But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East. I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur."
Hagel said ''stay the course" is not a policy. ''By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq . . . we're not winning," he said.
President Bush was preparing for separate speeches this week to reaffirm his plan to help Iraq train its security forces while its leaders build a democratic government. In his weekly Saturday radio address, Bush said the fighting there protected Americans at home.
In Iraq, officials continued to draft a new constitution in the face of tonight's deadline for parliamentary approval. They missed the initial deadline last week.
Other Republican senators appearing on Sunday news shows advocated remaining in Iraq until the mission set by Bush is completed, but they also noted that the public is becoming more and more concerned and needs to be reassured.
Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia, another possible candidate for president in 2008, said the United States is not losing in Iraq. He said a constitution guaranteeing basic freedoms would provide a rallying point for Iraqis. ''I think this is a very crucial time for the future of Iraq," Allen said on ''This Week."
''The terrorists don't have anything to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq," he said. ''All they care to do is disrupt."
Hagel, who was among those who advocated sending two to three times as many troops to Iraq when the war began in March 2003, said a stronger US military presence is not the solution. ''We're past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam," Hagel said. ''The longer we stay, the more problems we're going to have."
Allen said that unlike the communist-guided North Vietnamese who fought the United States, the Iraq insurgents have no guiding political philosophy or organization.
But Hagel argued that the similarities are growing. ''What I think the White House does not yet understand -- and some of my colleagues -- the dam has broke on this policy," Hagel said. ''The longer we stay there, the more similarities [to Vietnam] are going to come together."
The Army's top general, General Peter Schoomaker, said Saturday that the Army could keep the current number of soldiers in Iraq -- well over 100,000 -- for four more years as part of preparations for a worst-case scenario.