Democrats undecided how to end war

April 1, 2008 6:04:21 PM PDT
Democratic leaders returned from their spring break this week to declare that Iraq is in turmoil and that they will continue to try to force President Bush to end the war. But facing another uphill battle, party members are undecided on whether to try to cut off money or take a softer approach that is more likely to succeed.

They will have to decide soon. Congress has approved only $86.7 billion of the Bush administration's $196.4 billion request for war spending this budget year, which began Oct. 1. Most of the money is required by the military, which says it is about $102.5 billion short and will run out this spring.

By early May, the House is expected to consider spending legislation addressing the military's needs, with the Senate following suit. And by the end of May a separate policy bill should arrive that authorizes billions in defense programs.

The legislative push will come after Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there, report to Congress on the status of the war on April 8-9. The two officials are expected to tell lawmakers that impressive security gains and modest political progress have been made since last year's buildup of U.S. troops, and that troop withdrawals can continue this fall only after officials ascertain that the drawdown wouldn't hurt security.

Already, Democrats are challenging their recommendation that troops should stay, contending that the Iraqis are not doing enough to hasten progress and remain divided politically. As an example, they point to the recent upheaval in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where Iraqi leaders have launched a bloody offensive against Shiite militias.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said a political settlement in Iraq "appears to me to be no closer to reality."

"There is no unity even among, among the (Shiites)," he said. "The only thing they have in common is that they don't like the Sunnis."

Republicans counter that the Basra operation shows promising signs that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is a Shiite himself, is willing to target Shiite militias.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday declined to say whether Democrats would attempt to tie the money to troop withdrawals as they have in the past. Many Democrats advocate an alternative approach ? for example, insisting that troops reach certain training levels before being deployed.

Pelosi said Democrats will focus this year on trying to relieve the burden on the military and refocus efforts on Afghanistan as well as ending the war in Iraq.

Bush has starkly described the costs of trying to end the war too quickly. From his perspective, a premature U.S. withdrawal would lead to chaos in Iraq, embolden al-Qaida to pursue an attack on America and encourage Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's "status quo" policies on Iraq have "taken us deeply into debt, which has taken us deeply into the recession."

"It is clear that the Iraqi government has failed to take advantage of whatever security opportunities they have had to have political solutions for reconciliation and peace, and now the situation has deteriorated from the standpoint of our troops," she added.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made similar comments this week in declaring the war a failure.

"Instead of making our own country safer, we are greasing the pockets of corrupt Iraqi politicians and buying their temporary cooperation," Reid, D-Nev., said.

Reid, Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, previously have championed legislation tying money to troop withdrawals.

But other Democrats say they are uneasy with that approach. Some say it is bound to fail as it has in the past because Democrats lack the votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate. Others, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, say are uneasy about threatening money needed by soldiers and Marines.

"I think policy needs to be changed," but as long as troops are deployed "those troops need to be supported," said Hoyer, D-Md.

There are now about 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. By the end of July that number is supposed to fall to 140,000.

Whether additional troops are withdrawn after July is one of the questions that Petraeus is expected to address in his testimony. He already has made it known that he wants a "period of assessment" for at least several weeks after July before deciding on the timing of further withdrawals.