WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday endorsed a call by a prominent member of her rank-and-file to immediately begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

``We should follow the lead of Congressman John Murtha, who has put forth a plan to make American safer, to make our military stronger and to make Iraq more stable,'' Pelosi said. ``That is what the American people and our troops deserve.''

Pelosi said she wouldn't be calling for a party caucus position on the plan by the Pennsylvania Democrat because ``a vote on the war is an individual vote.''

Nevertheless, she said: ``I believe that a majority of our caucus clearly supports Mr. Murtha.''

Two weeks ago, Murtha called for U.S. troops to begin returning home and said a complete pullout could be achieved in six months. He introduced a resolution in the House that would force the president to withdraw the nearly 160,000 troops in Iraq ``at the earliest practicable date.''

Murtha, a Vietnam combat veteran and former Marine, voted in 2002 to give the president the authority to go to war. He has been a strong supporter of the military and an influential voice on military matters during his three-decade House career _ and his position switch set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill.

At the time, Pelosi emphasized that Murtha spoke only for himself, and not for her or the Democratic caucus.

She changed course after President Bush gave a speech on Iraq on Wednesday.

``I'm endorsing what Mr. Murtha is saying, which is that the status quo is not working and that we need to have a plan that makes us safer and our military stronger and makes Iraq more stable,'' she said. ``I believe that what he has said has great wisdom.''