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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Senate Presses Administration for Iraq Plans - New York Times

Senate Presses Administration for Iraq Plans - New York TimesNovember 16, 2005
Senate Presses Administration for Iraq Plans
By CARL HULSE

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 - The Senate voted on Tuesday to press the Bush administration to provide more public information about the course of the war in Iraq as lawmakers of both parties made it clear they wanted chief responsibility for securing the country shifted to the Iraqi government within the next year.

Lawmakers voted 79 to 19 for a Republican plan to seek new quarterly reports on matters like the number of Iraqi troops ready to take the lead in combat operations. The proposal expressed the Senate view that "2006 should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."

But the Senate rejected, by a vote of 58 to 40, a Democratic proposal to require the Bush administration to project dates for a phased withdrawal of troops should conditions allow.

While the practical consequences of the bipartisan vote on the Republican proposal may be limited and largely symbolic, the willingness of most Senate Republicans to join with most Democrats to prod the Bush administration on the war represented new determination to distance themselves from the White House in the face of dwindling public support for operations in Iraq.

"For the first time," said Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, "our Republican colleagues have joined Democrats in listing and insisting on a clear Iraqi strategy from this administration, a schedule to achieve it and real accountability."

[President Bush, asked during a news conference in Kyoto, Japan, about the Congressional action, said on Wednesday that he was "more than happy" to provide Congress with more regular updates on Iraq.

["I appreciated the fact that the Senate rejected an amendment that would have taken our troops out of Iraq before the mission is complete," he said, a reference to the Democrats' attempt to set a deadline for withdrawal. He said he viewed the language that passed as consistent with the administration's strategy, and insisted anew that "the only reason we won't succeed would be if we lost our nerve."]

The proposal, part of a broad annual Pentagon policy measure approved 98 to 0, came as senators also sought greater influence in setting American policy on the treatment of terror detainees and their access to courts, matters Congress has largely ceded to the administration. The detainee provisions, if enacted into law, would essentially codify the military court system established by the White House for "enemy combatants" at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

By 84 to 14, the Senate approved a bipartisan compromise that would allow the Guantánamo prisoners to challenge in federal court their detention as enemy combatants and to appeal automatically any convictions and sentences handed down by military tribunals in excess of 10 years. The deal retreated from a Senate vote last week that would have cut off the detainees' access to the federal courts, but it would still prevent those being held from asking the courts to intervene in treatment and prison conditions.

The Senate positions on Iraq policy, detainee rights and an earlier approval of a provision banning cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees known as the McCain amendment were expected to complicate negotiations over military policy with the House, which included none of those proposals in its own Pentagon measure. And the administration has already encouraged the House leadership to resist the provision on torture in a separate Senate military spending bill.

White House officials said on Tuesday that the administration would be willing to provide additional information sought by Congress. "We have always welcomed a regular dialogue with Congress," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman. "We agree that progress is being made by both the military and civilians in Iraq. The progress is extraordinary and should not be drowned out by partisan politics in Washington."

Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader and a sponsor of the Iraqi policy approved by the Senate, sought to frame the approach as one of cooperation with the White House.

"It is not a change of policy," said Mr. Frist, who called the approval of his plan an "absolute repudiation" of the Democratic push for possible withdrawal dates.

But the main opposition for the policy proposal came from Republicans who said it put too many constraints on the administration, was a step toward a timetable for withdrawal, was ill timed because Mr. Bush is out of the country and had been prompted mainly by political anxiety about the impact of the war on next year's midterm elections.

"I think it speaks to a bit of nervousness about public perception of how the war is going in terms of '06 elections," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, one of 13 Republicans who joined 6 Democrats in opposing the proposal. "And to be honest with you, the war is going to be going on long after '06. I'm more worried about getting it right in Iraq than the '06 elections."

Though the competing proposal from Senate Democrats was rejected, most of them backed the Republican leadership's plan and hailed its approval as a new recognition by the Senate that Bush administration policy on Iraq had been misguided.

"The United States Senate said the policy must change; staying the course will not do," said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. "It was a vote of no confidence on the president's policies in Iraq."

Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee who wrote the proposal based on a Democratic plan, said the push on the Iraq policy was not meant as criticism of the administration but was a signal to the Iraqi people.

"We have done our share," Mr. Warner said. "Now the challenge is up to you."

In the measure, the Senate says its view is that American forces should not remain in Iraq "any longer than required" and that the "administration needs to explain to Congress and the America people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq."

The bill also requires a new quarterly report from the administration, though it provides no penalty for noncompliance. Among the topics to be covered in the report are efforts at reaching a domestic political settlement in Iraq, training of Iraqi security forces, the status of Iraqi police forces, the ability of the Iraqi government to direct domestic security forces and a schedule for meeting conditions that would allow a transfer of security responsibilities and, ultimately, a withdrawal of troops.

The vote on the legal rights of detainees ended days of intense negotiations after the Senate voted last week to block their access to the courts, an action that drew opposition from a variety of human rights and legal advocacy groups who saw it as an affront to the Constitution.

Mr. Graham, the author of the original plan, said the new approach could protect both the Bush administration's objectives for holding and trying the detainees and the rights allowed of those being held. The compromise "allows every detainee under our control to have their day in court," he said.

But other lawmakers were highly critical. Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Senate was meddling with "fundamental rights" without sufficient review. "These are weighty and momentous considerations that go far beyond the detainees at Guantánamo," Mr. Specter said.

An effort to reject the Graham provisions on court access by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, failed on a 54-to-44 vote.

In the aftermath of the votes on the legal rights of detainees, human rights groups expressed disappointment., acknowledging that the compromise was an improvement over last week's decision but saying it still limited the jurisdiction of the courts.

"It is certainly past time for Congress to get involved in the issue of detention at Guantánamo," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First. "But Congressional involvement should mean more than simply endorsing the administration's deeply flawed processes like the military tribunals and combatant status review tribunals. Encroaching on the rule of the courts does not solve the problem, and in fact makes it worse."

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