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Debate heats up over timetable for Iraq withdrawal

Philip Dine
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

WASHINGTON - As the House prepares to mark up a war-spending bill this week, the biggest congressional showdown yet on Iraq looms over a timetable for withdrawal of American troops. Republicans and Democrats are largely unified on either side of the debate.

Vice President Dick Cheney turned up the heat Monday by accusing Democrats of "twisted logic" for saying they support the troops yet opposing the administration's surge and seeking to get American soldiers out of Iraq.

"If you support the war on terror, then it only makes sense to support it where the terrorists are fighting us," Cheney said, adding that Democrats "are telling the enemy simply to watch the clock and wait us out."

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Cheney was wrong.

"This is not the war on terror. This is an Iraqi war, which is separate and distinct from the war on terror, and people ought to understand that," said Skelton. "The only solution is for the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security."

Later this week, the House will take up President George W. Bush's $100 billion request for supplemental war spending; Senate action will follow.

Much of that sum is earmarked for the increase in troops that Bush announced earlier this year. Of the reinforcements, two brigades - about 7,000 troops - already are in Iraq, while one brigade a month will depart for Iraq from now through May, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said.

Last week, House Democrats announced they would add to the spending bill a deadline of Aug. 2008 for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the No. 2 GOP House leader, says he plans to do everything he can to rebuff the antiwar effort, which he says is meant to mask the fact that Democrats "are not able to come up with a strategy" for victory, and so instead are focused on criticizing and hamstringing the president.

"As Republican whip I can tell you we're more united on this issue than anything in quite a while," Blunt said. "It's easy to throw cheap shots from the cheap seats," Blunt added.

Senate Democrats have coalesced around a position to bring troops home by March of next year, with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., leading the charge to build support as majority whip.

"Because of the president's failed strategy ... our military options in Iraq have been exhausted," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. The Senate measure, which faces tougher going than the House version because of the prospect of a filibuster, would need at least 60 votes.

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, plans to push back.

"We need to give (U.S. commanders) a chance to succeed, not micromanage the war from Congress like the House Democrats are attempting to do," Bond said.

Many of the most anti-war Democrats want quicker action to remove American troops.

Their view was dramatized over the past several days, as Missouri peace activist Tina Richards attracted national attention for her encounter with a legislator that was caught on video and widely seen on the Internet. The activists hope to pressure more congressmen into tougher action.

Richards, of Salem, Mo., got into an argument late last week with Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who argued with her that the August deadline was the best that could pass.

"Maybe now they'll try to listen to us instead of not returning our calls," Richards told The Associated Press.

Reps. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and Jerry Costello, D-Ill., are among those who haven't decided whether to back the Democratic leaders' timetable or insist on an earlier deadline. On the other end, a conservative coalition of House Democrats, leery of being tagged with having "lost Iraq," is treading cautiously.

Costello, who voted against the original authorization for war with Iraq, is firm that the surge and increased spending are wrong.

"If we send 30,000 new troops, all we are doing is sending 30,000 new targets. We are in the middle of a civil war," Costello said. "Our troops completed the mission when they removed Saddam Hussein. We ought to be taking our troops out of Iraq. The longer we are there, the less likely the Iraqi people are the new Iraqi government is to step up and get control of the situation."

The House Democratic plan would also:

+ Redirect $1.2 billion to the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and $3.5 billion to improve care for returning soldiers.

+ Require Bush to adhere to military guidelines on unit readiness and deployment durations before sending more troops.

+ Set timetables for Iraqi progress in meeting political and military benchmarks, or American troops will be pulled out as soon as December of this year.

Top House Democrats retreated Monday from a provision to limit Bush's authority for taking military action against Iran, The Associated Press reported.

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