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Congress to call for troop withdrawal beginning in October

WASHINGTON—Democrats in Congress put finishing touches Monday on the Iraq war-spending bill that they expect to send to President Bush later this week—including a call to withdraw most American combat forces starting no later than Oct. 1.

The measure's nonbinding goal will be to complete the pullout by April 1, 2008.

Bush has declared that he'll veto the bill because of the withdrawal terms, but Democrats say they'll keep up pressure for a new war strategy.

The bill calls for some American forces to remain in or near Iraq to make targeted counterterrorism attacks and train Iraqi forces; appeals for international diplomacy to nudge Iraqi factions to negotiations; and demands that the Iraqi government meet deadlines for progress on political reforms.

Lawmakers from the House of Representatives and the Senate met Monday afternoon to resolve differences between the bills passed earlier by the two chambers. The proposed changes to the Iraq strategy were attached to the president's $103 billion request for funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The House is expected to vote on the measure Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. Then it'll go to the president.

Bush rejected demands for a troop withdrawal again on Monday.

"I believe strongly that politicians in Washington shouldn't be telling generals how to do their job," he told reporters at the start of an Oval Office meeting with his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. "An artificial timetable of withdrawal would say to an enemy, just wait them out; it would say to the Iraqis, don't do hard things necessary to achieve our objectives; and it would be discouraging for our troops."

The version worked out by the House-Senate committee would:

_Set benchmarks for the Iraqi government to develop its military forces and take actions to achieve national reconciliation. If Bush doesn't certify that the benchmarks are being met, U.S. troops would start to leave Iraq by July 1, with a goal of ending the withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2007. If the benchmarks are met, the withdrawal would begin Oct. 1.

_Restrict funding for some deployments in line with Defense Department standards, but give the president authority to waive the restrictions. Under these provisions, only troops the Pentagon calls "fully mission capable" could be deployed; Army, Reserve and National Guard units could not serve in Iraq for more than one year (seven months for Marines); and service members could not be redeployed to Iraq for one year (or seven months between deployments for Marines).

_Cut foreign aid to Iraq if benchmarks aren't met.

In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Bush was in a "state of denial" when he said progress is being made. Bush and Petraeus say the troop buildup they've begun is showing promise. Reid denies that.

"Back in December, the Iraq Study Group said the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. Unfortunately, since then nothing has changed" and American combat deaths are increasing, Reid said.

"Many who voted for change in November anticipated dramatic and immediate results in January. But like it or not, George W. Bush is still the commander in chief, and this is his war," Reid said.

Reid said Democrats would make sure that troops in war zones had the funds needed to complete the missions they were given. If Bush vetoes the bill, Democratic leaders are expected to pass legislation providing funds for the wars without withdrawal terms, because they don't want to cut off funds to troops in danger.

The $124.2 billion measure included about $20 billion beyond what Bush requested. The additional spending would cover shortfalls in military spending on health, troop readiness and equipment, said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

In addition, the bill would provide $3.5 billion in subsidies for agriculture and $6.9 billion for Katrina and Rita hurricane relief.

"This is a balanced plan. It recognizes that we still have military responsibility in Iraq and will continue to do so even a year from now, but it will force the Iraqis to fight their own civil war if they insist on doing so," Inouye said.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., objected to the demand for withdrawal to begin.

"I just don't think it's a good idea for us in the Congress to manage the war in the battlefield," he said.

But Young said he hoped both parties and the president could work together.

"We've seen too many of our wounded kids at the hospital. We've attended too many funerals. We want this over," he said.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.