Democrats gear up for Congress tussle

U.S. POLICY ON IRAQ WAR

Battle over troop pullout to hot up when Senate meets next week on defence spending.

DEMOCRAT lawmakers are digging in their heels for a fight over war strategy in Iraq, a day after the emotionally charged congressional hearings with the top two US officials there.

The Democrats refused to budge from their declared aim of a complete troop withdrawal.

Mr Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, reflected the sentiments in the Democrat camp when he brushed aside the testimonies of General David Petraeus and the US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

“Our witnesses have been sent here to restore credibility to a discredited policy. With all respect to you…I don’t buy it,” he said.

Referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Mr Lantos added: “We need to send Maliki’s government a message loud and clear. Removing a brigade is nothing but a political whisper and it is unacceptable to the American people and to the majority of Congress.”

Gen Petraeus announced that a limited withdrawal was possible by the middle of next year. But the bulk of US forces had to stay and finish their mission, he said.

He revealed that a unit of 2,200 marines and sailors – deployed as part of the Bush administration’s troop escalation plan – would leave Iraq this month.

Other surge units would follow, and be re-deployed out of Iraq without replacement.

That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq by mid-2008 – roughly the same number of American troops that were in Iraq before the President decided to dispatch additional forces.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid described Gen Petraeus’ testimony as a continuation of “the President’s flawed escalation policy until at least July 2008”.

On the Senate floor, he announced plans to resume work next week on a Bill authorising defence spending for 2008, setting the stage once more for more battles between the President and a Democratic-controlled Congress over troop numbers and withdrawal schedules.

Mr Reid pulled the Bill from the Senate schedule in July after Republicans blocked consideration of an amendment that would have removed most troops from Iraq by April.

Mr Bush is expected to ask Congress this month for another US$50 billion (S$76 billion) to fund the war on top of the US$147 billion he proposed in February this year, opening the opportunity for more heated debates.

There are doubts, however, whether the Democrats have the power to bring the war to a halt.

They began their fight against the US troop surge with public opinion on their side. But they had no real weapons to force the White House to change, given the realities of a 51-49 Senate majority.

They have tried several initiatives over the last eight months: multiple resolutions opposing the troop increase, numerous proposals to establish timetables for withdrawal, plans to repeal the original congressional authorisation that gave the President the power to go to war, and even an effort to cut off funds for the conflict.

But none has succeeded in forcing the hand of Mr Bush.

The Democrats have not been helped by a New York Times/CBS news poll, which suggested that the administration might get a lift from Gen Petraeus’ testimony.

When asked to choose who could best end the war in Iraq, 68 per cent of those polled said they most trusted the military commanders.

Republican lawmakers have been largely united behind the President’s war strategy.

Withdrawing troops on a faster timeline than Gen Petraeus recommended would “make it more likely we’re going to have another 9/11 experience”, said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

With Congress deadlocked between the Democrats and Republicans, and the public more trusting of the ground commanders’ advice, it might well mean that Mr Bush will continue to have a free hand on Iraq well into the last stretch of his office.

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