House votes to release portion of Iraq war funds

WASHINGTON—In a bid to pressure Iraq's government and President Bush, the House of Representatives voted Thursday to release only about half the $96 billion that Bush requested for the military through September, holding back the rest unless Iraq meets goals by mid-July for a fair political system and an end to factional violence.

The measure passed the House by 221-205, with most Republicans voting against it. More importantly, it doesn't have enough support to clear the Senate, and even if it did, Bush vowed Thursday to veto it.

The real point of the measure is that it frames the House's bargaining position for the final war-funding bill, which must be worked out with the Senate and the White House. All sides hope to reach agreement on final terms by Memorial Day.

Earlier Thursday, the House rejected by 171-255 a bill calling for troop withdrawal from Iraq in nine months.

The Democratic-led House and Senate disagree on specifics of how to structure the war-funding bill, but agree on common principles of supporting the troops, strengthening the military and holding the Iraqi government accountable, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"With no consequences (for failure to meet current benchmarks of progress) we see what the Iraqi government is doing: absolutely nothing," she said.

Bush said Thursday for the first time that benchmarks for Iraqi progress could be part of the spending bill.

"It makes sense to have benchmarks as a part of our discussion on how to go forward," he said. However, he didn't spell out consequences if they weren't met, and said he'd veto the House bill if Congress sent it to him because its split-funding scheme would hamper war management.

The House bill's benchmarks for progress would require the Iraqi government to disarm violent sectarian militias, pass a law that would distribute oil revenues among all Iraqi groups, make political changes to address the concerns of minority groups and hold provincial elections.

Iraq's government has missed its own deadlines on all these measures so far.

On Thursday in the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi parliament, followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they'd won majority support for a bill calling for a timeline for withdrawing non-Iraqi troops.

The White House downplayed the development.

"The prime minister, the president and the vice presidents of Iraq have made it clear that they think U.S. troops are needed in Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "We've heard these claims before (from Sadr supporters), but they rarely materialize."

The White House is under growing pressure to get out of Iraq not just from Democrats and Iraqis but also from moderate Republicans in Congress. On Thursday, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, acknowledged that many Republicans are "deeply frustrated and troubled."

Snowe, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who visited Iraq over the weekend, said the time had come for Iraq's government to act but that it lacked a sense of urgency. Iraq's parliament plans a two-month summer vacation, which U.S. officials are urging it not to take.

Eleven moderate House Republicans visited Bush on Tuesday and told him bluntly that they couldn't support his war policies much longer. If progress isn't demonstrable by September, many Republicans say, they're likely to begin calling for withdrawal.

The House bill would release about $43 billion immediately. The House would vote again July 23 or 24 on the remaining $53 billion. If Iraq isn't making progress toward national reconciliation, Congress would vote on whether to withdraw most combat forces in 180 days, except for those who'd remain to fight terrorists and train Iraqis.

Pelosi said the plan would strengthen national security by freeing U.S. forces to fight terrorists in other parts of the world. The bill also would add funds for military health, homeland security, explosive-resistant vehicles and military reserve forces.

Bush last week vetoed a war-spending bill that would have required a withdrawal to begin by Oct. 1.


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