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Senate defies Iraq veto threat

By Karoun Demirjian

WASHINGTON — The Senate took the rare step of attempting to end a war Thursday, calling on President Bush to withdraw most American troops from Iraq by next April on the same day that the top U.S. commander in Iraq gave a notably cautious assessment of the military campaign’s progress.

The Senate’s action outlines an exit strategy but also pitches the nation into a period of political brinkmanship and uncer- tainty as Congress and Bush dig in for what is likely to be a protracted showdown over terms of the bill that would pay for continuing war operations.

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The president has promised to veto the legislation as soon as it crosses his desk, probably early next week, saying that setting dates for withdrawal will embolden the insurgents fighting U.S. troops.

War opponents in the House and Senate do not have enough votes to override such a veto, and neither side has shown a willingness to compromise, at least not publicly.

“It is amazing that legislation urgently needed to fund our troops took 80 days to make its way around the Capitol,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “Democrats have known that if the bill was sent to [Bush] in its current form, he would veto it. … It is their responsibility.”

But Democrats say the president’s unwillingness to discuss an exit strategy is out of touch with the country. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of Americans support the idea of a troop withdrawal from Iraq by August 2008.

“This is a responsible plan for redeployment, not a precipitous withdrawal,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D- Nev.). “For a president that took us to war under false pretenses, he now needs the courage to admit his policies have failed and work with us to bring the war to a responsible end.”

The $124.2 billion spending bill, approved by the Senate 51-46 after House passage Wednesday on a vote of 218-208, provides more than $90 billion for war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next several months. The measure also includes a variety of domestic ventures, including an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25, aid for Gulf Coast states hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and additional healthcare assistance for veterans and children.

In both chambers, votes were split largely along party lines and correspondingly differing interpretations of the situation in Iraq.

Entrenched positions

For Democrats—who were joined in the Senate by Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon—a lack of evident political commit- ment and progress on the part of Iraqis has been key in their eroding patience with the ongoing deployment of nearly 30,000 more U.S. troops. Republicans, meanwhile, have remained willing to give the administration more time to see whether the troop surge— which should be completed by mid-June—helps quell the violence in Iraq and helps stabilize its government.

Lawmakers from both parties seemed eager this week to hear the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus, who has been the lead commander of operations in Iraq during the first two months of the troop surge.

But Petraeus’ observations did little to change the course of the congressional debate. The general qualified even his most positive reports on recent developments in Iraq, such as the relative peace achieved in Anbar province, the dismantling of a car bomb network in Baghdad responsible for the deaths of more than 650 Iraqis and a two- thirds reduction in sectarian violence across the country.

“I want to be very clear: There is vastly more work to be done in many areas,” he said at a Pentagon news conference Thursday, acknowledging that current conditions on the ground are the “most complex and challenging” he had yet observed in Iraq. “This effort may get harder before it gets easier.”

Petraeus added that the involvement of several foreign agitators is a complicating factor. He described Al Qaeda as Iraq’s “public enemy No. 1” and said it is responsible for the majority of “spectacular” car bomb attacks. He said Syria and Iran have been aiding insurgent networks.

The military had found proof of such links in at least one case, Petraeus added, citing a recently captured 22-page memo detailing plans for an attack carried out by the Khazali network on Jan. 20 in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers. He said the attackers were being funded by Iran.

“We think that records are kept so that the individuals carrying out these attack can demonstrate what they did to those providing the resources,” he said.

Petraeus, who promised lawmakers a more detailed and thorough review of the U.S. war effort by September, attempted to steer clear of commenting on what he called the “political minefield” surrounding the Iraq funding debate. But he defended the efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to promote reconciliation.

Praise for Iraqi leader

“He’s not the Prime Minister Tony Blair of Iraq—he doesn’t have a parliamentary majority,” Petraeus said as he commended al-Maliki’s efforts to engage the various tribal and religious factions in the Iraqi government and defuse sectarian tensions. But he maintained that inter-factional relations are likely to deteriorate if a U.S. withdrawal occurs within the next several months.

“My sense is that there would be a resumption in sectarian violence were the forces to be reduced,” he said.

Republicans said Petraeus’ view of the effect of a withdrawal justifies their opposition to an end to U.S. involvement.

“We were told in January by some of our Democratic col- leagues to listen to the generals,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said as he chided Democratic senators. “Yet this week, with our top general in Iraq here to report on progress, most of those on the other side of the aisle covered their ears.”

Democrats said their spending proposal is more responsible because it would push the Iraqis to assume control of the fighting and would soon bring U.S. troops home.

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