Senate OKs withdrawal as part of war bill

WASHINGTON - The Senate voted for the first time Tuesday to require President Bush to begin drawing down troop levels in Iraq in four months, putting both chambers of Congress on record as calling to reverse Bush's Iraq policy.

The Senate vote came on an amendment proposed by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to eliminate troop-withdrawal language from the bill. The terms would be binding to begin withdrawal within 120 days. They also would set a nonbinding goal of removing most combat forces by March 31, 2008.

The vote was 50-48 against Cochran's amendment, affirming the withdrawal plan. The Senate split largely along party lines, with most Democrats for withdrawal and most Republicans against.

The vote signals that the Senate will include withdrawal language when it votes today or Thursday on the full war-spending bill.

Veto threat

Bush renewed his threat to veto the bill if the final version includes terms for troop withdrawal. The bill would "place freedom and democracy in Iraq at grave risk, embolden our enemies and undercut the administration's plans to develop the Iraqi economy," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

The House of Representatives passed a similar war-spending bill last week mandating withdrawal of U.S. troops by Aug. 31, 2008. Both houses must pass identical terms before the legislation can be sent to Bush for his signature or veto.

Democrats say the votes in both houses of Congress reflect strong public opposition to Bush's plan for Iraq.

Since the war began in March 2003, 3,242 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed and more than 24,000 have been wounded. The United States has spent almost $400 billion on the war.

Democrats also argue that voting to end most U.S. military involvement in Iraq in the next year puts pressure on Iraqi leaders to speed their efforts to reach the political compromises necessary to stop sectarian violence and create a stable representative government.

Both House and Senate versions would provide all of the $103 billion the president requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would add about $20 billion for other items, mainly national security, health care for veterans and returning troops, and hurricane relief.

Both versions also would keep some U.S. forces in Iraq in 2008 and possibly beyond to fight terrorists, protect Americans and train Iraqis.

Democrats are unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority in either house that they'd need to override a veto. Still, they declared victory and promised to keep taking steps until the president changes course.

"This is what the American people have been asking for," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. "We must keep pushing forward."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Congress was accomplishing its goal of putting pressure on Iraqis.

"What we're doing here is giving (the Bush administration) leverage that they can tell the Iraqi leaders that the support of Americans, acting through the Congress, is disappearing for more and more military presence in an open-ended way," Levin said.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Democrats were sending a signal to Bush. "It's time to set benchmarks. It's time to signal to the Iraqi government that they must take responsibility for their own people. It's time to start redeploying our troops and commit ourselves to battling al-Qaida and other terrorists around the world," he said.

GOP stance

Republicans argued that Bush's new strategy - increasing U.S. forces and moving them into small outposts alongside Iraqi forces to maintain security - was starting to show signs of success.

They also said that declaring an intention to withdraw by next year amounted to an admission of defeat and that Iraqis couldn't achieve political reconciliation unless American forces helped them establish security.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who had expressed concerns about Bush's troop increase in Iraq, voted with fellow Republicans to strip the language changing Iraq policy from the bill. Warner said such a change would be a "bugle of retreat" that would encourage terrorists.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he'd been critical of the conduct of the war since it began, but believed the strategy now was right.

"What we must not do is to give up just at the moment we're starting to turn things around in Iraq," McCain said.

McCain's list of hopeful signs included an increase in useful intelligence tips from Iraqis, fewer bombings in Baghdad and the arrival of all Iraqi battalions - "many at or above 75 percent" of the number of soldiers they're supposed to contain.

He predicted that the Iraqi government would collapse if most U.S. forces left over the next year. He warned that terrorists would then use Iraq as a training ground as they did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Two Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of withdrawal - Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Hagel said Bush's policy was "taking America deeper and deeper into this quagmire with no exit strategy." He called the president's policy the product of "arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam" and argued that it was time for Congress to establish "responsible boundaries."