WASHINGTON (AFP) — Senate Republicans Tuesday agreed to debate a bill by an anti-war Democrat which calls for the withdrawal of most troops from Iraq -- but only to highlight progress in the US troop surge strategy.
In a new twist to the long-simmering congressional fight over the war, the Senate voted 70 to 24 to take up the measure, which imposes severe funding restrictions on any Iraq operations after 120 days.
The debate was the first skirmish in what is likely to be another heated battle between the White House and Congress over war policy, before Iraq commander General David Petraeus reports back to Congress in April.
"Now, after months of positive reports on improved safety and even important political progress, some of our friends on the other side once again want to cut funding for the troops," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
"They want to tear up the Petraeus plan and cut off funds for the very troops who are carrying it out."
The bill, expected to come up for a final vote later this week, is seen as certain to fail, as Democrats cannot persuade enough of their own senators, and wavering Republicans to surmount 60-vote barrier needed for passage.
But Senate Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid said it was time to end the Iraq war, which he denounced as the "worst foreign policy blunder" in US history.
"What has five years of war brought to America, the Middle East and the world?" he asked.
"Thousands of deaths, a trillion in debt, a catastrophic failure of diplomacy. My Republican colleagues: think what this war has done to our nation's fiscal soundness. It has destroyed it."
The bill, framed by Democratic Senator Russ Feingold requires the "safe redeployment" of US combat troops from Iraq.
It also requires that after 120 days, funding for US operations should be limited to operations against Al-Qaeda, securiing US personnel and facilities, training Iraqi forces and covering the US pullback.
President George W. Bush and his Republican allies have repeatedly out-muscled the Democratic-led Congress, even though its leaders consider they were mandated by their 2006 congressional election victory to end the war.
The row over the war, has receeded in the 2008 presidential election due to the apparent success of the surge in calming violence in Iraq.
But it is likely to reemerge as an issue, as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain backs the surge, while Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one of whom will be party nominee, oppose it and have vowed to bring US troops home.
Army chief-of-staff General George Casey earlier Tuesday called for deployments for US troops in Iraq to be cut from 15 to 12 months to reduce the pressure on the armed forces.
The 12-month rotations could be maintained even if Washington decides to move forward with a plan to freeze the troop withdrawal in the summer, he argued.
Some 157,000 troops are currently deployed in Iraq, but that number should be cut to 140,000 in July.
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