WASHINGTON &

President Bush has an obligation to lead U.S. forces out of the "quicksand" of Iraq before thousands more Americans are killed, Sen. Gordon Smith said Wednesday.

Smith, an Oregon Republican, said that after more than four years of war in Iraq, the president should be focused on "how we get America home and how we can continue to protect the homeland."

Smith, who is up for re-election next year, said he hoped that Bush and his advisers were looking for ways to recapture the support of voters who have soured on both the war and Bush himself.

"You can't run a war without the support of the American people," he said.

While Americans "feel it in their bones the need to take on Al Qaida" in Iraq and around the globe, they also "feel caught in the quicksand of someone else's civil war, and they want a way to be extricated from it. And I think the president needs to lead that," Smith said.

Smith made the comments after meeting privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for nearly 40 minutes Wednesday at his Senate office. Rice declined to comment after the closed-door meeting &

one of several she had Wednesday with senators from both parties &

but Smith called the session helpful.

"She came to listen. She came with a mission of outreach," said Smith, who was one of four Republicans to back a Democratic proposal ordering troop withdrawals from Iraq.

"We were very candid in sharing our thoughts and feelings ... about where we are and how we get America home and how we can continue to protect the homeland," Smith said.

Smith said Rice asked for the meeting after Bush called the senator and spoke with him for half an hour last week.

"We had a heart to heart as friends with a real difference," he said, referring to Bush. Rice's visit was likely in response to that conversation, he added.

"I was privileged to share with her my thinking. I hope it affects theirs," he said.

"I think it is accurate to say the administration is listening as never before," Smith added. "And I think that is a very encouraging thing, because America needs to come back together around a way forward in the war on terror."

Smith was the first Republican to co-sponsor a Democratic amendment that would have ordered Bush to begin pulling troops from Iraq within four months and end combat by April 2008. Senate Republicans scuttled the measure Wednesday after an unusual all-night debate on the war.

Smith called the round-the-clock session "a perfectly good waste of hot air," but said it demonstrated the importance of the issue to lawmakers on all sides.

Smith called Iraq "ground zero" in the war on terror, but said overarching that is a civil war based on ancient ethnic and religious rivalries.

"To consider any way forward without an historical understanding (of the religious and ethnic differences in Iraq) is simply to misunderstand the game entirely," he said.

Smith voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq in 2002 and publicly supported Bush's war strategy until last December, when he called the Iraq policy "absurd" and possibly criminal.

Eight months later, Smith said he is not sure there is a good way out of Iraq.

"I don't see it any longer as a fight we can win or as a fight that's our own," he said. In retrospect, he added, it might have been better to have left Iraq after the president made his famous "Mission Accomplished" speech in May 2003, after Saddam Hussein was toppled.

"He should have said, 'Keep sailing home boys,' because that's all we can win," Smith said.