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Senators want to pressure Iraqis to form a new government

WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday introduced a measure that says Iraqi leaders must meet deadlines to form a Cabinet and must appoint a commission to write new amendments to their constitution or face the possibility that U.S. troops will withdraw.

"The bottom line is this: that we must keep pressure on the Iraqis to reach a political settlement to maximize their chances of success in defeating the insurgency and to avoid an all-out civil war," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., one of the sponsors, along with Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jack Reed, D-R.I.

The amendment, which two key senators immediately opposed, is one of a number of measures that the Senate will discuss as it takes up the $106.5 billion supplemental spending bill, which includes $67.6 billion for war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's expected to take days, if not weeks, to pass the bill—which includes $27 billion for hurricane relief—as Congress debates various add-ons, such as billions to repair levees around New Orleans and to strengthen border security.

If Congress passes the bill in its current form, the Iraq war will have cost American taxpayers about $282 billion so far, said Steve Kosiak, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a policy research group in Washington.

The Bush administration originally figured the cost would be much less. In 2002 it criticized Larry Lindsey, who was White House economic adviser at the time, as estimating too high when he put the cost between $100 billion and $200 billion.

Iraqi political leaders named Jawad al Maliki as their prime minister-designate Saturday after four months of impasse after the nation's elections last December.

Under Iraq's draft constitution, al Maliki has 30 days to form a new Cabinet, and Iraq's Parliament must name a commission that will have four months to propose any changes to the constitution.

The congressional resolution, intended to put pressure on Iraq, would urge President Bush to "make it clear to the Iraqis" that they must meet those deadlines if U.S. forces are to remain in the country, Levin said. A companion measure would require Bush to submit a report on the process to Congress every 30 days until a unity government forms and the constitution is amended.

The idea of pressuring the Iraqis to make headway has been gaining appeal among American lawmakers as U.S. casualties mount and Iraqi religious and ethnic groups battle one another. This would be the first time that American lawmakers have attempted to link Iraq's political process with the continued presence of U.S. forces.

But Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he opposed the measure. "We shouldn't impose deadlines or dates on the military or the executive branch for operations in that part of the world," he said.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also opposed it. He said Iraqis had made "significant, encouraging" progress in the past week in forming a government. He said he feared that the measure could be misinterpreted and hinder further efforts to put together an inclusive government.

Reed suggested that time was running out for a political solution.

"There's a real danger today, if political leaders in Baghdad do not step up to the responsibilities, that they will become increasingly irrelevant to the people of Iraq," Reed said. "And that country will tip into sectarian warfare, which will essentially, I think, leave us with very few options in terms of continued presence of our military forces."

Efforts to form a new government stalled when minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds opposed interim Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari's bid to continue in his post and demanded that the majority Shiites relinquish some control over key government posts, including the Ministries of Interior, Defense and Oil.

U.S. officials in Baghdad briefed President Bush and Senate leaders Tuesday on the formation of the new Iraqi government. Afterward, Bush said that while some lawmakers didn't agree with him on all aspects of the war, "all of us agree that the formation of the unity government is a very important moment in the history of a new Iraq."

"Our troops need to know, and those working in the field need to know, that there is a bipartisan desire for us to be successful in this very important theater in the war on terror," he said.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.