Democrats come up with new Iraq plan

Rep. Steny Hower (AFP)

Democrats sparked a new skirmish with President George W. Bush over Iraq Tuesday, with a plan to bankroll the unpopular war for just three months with an option to cut off funds in July.

The latest move in a titanic struggle over ending US involvement in Iraq came a week after Bush vetoed a Democratic bid to condition future financing for the four-year-old conflict on a timeline for troop withdrawals.

As new vitriol over the war rattled Washington, Democratic leaders in Congress also latched onto first signs of Republican impatience over Bush's surge of nearly 30,000 troops into Iraq.

But the White House hit back that the Democratic view of the war appeared as steeped in fantasy as the "Wizard of Oz" movie, and Bush backers accused them of treating combat troops like children waiting for pocket money.

Top Democrats in the House of Representatives said a vote on a new war budget to send back to Bush could come as soon as Thursday.

They said the bill would fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for three months, but "fence off" around 40 billion dollars of funding until Bush reported progress in Iraq, where 3,375 US soldiers have died.

"You get three months of funding, the balance would be fenced subject to the report," Democratic House leader Steny Hoyer told reporters, adding the first tranche of funding would take operations through August.

Congress would vote again on freeing up the remaining war funding in July, upon receiving a progress report on development, quelling sectarian violence and other key goals.

Should it block the funds, troop withdrawals would begin within 180 days, Hoyer said.

But even if the new war budget goes to a vote this week, it appears unlikely a split-funding bid would squeeze through the more closely divided Senate.

"It's possible to get something in the House side that can be done only with Democrats," said Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

"I can't just jam something with Democrats, as much as I'd like to."

House and Senate versions of the bill must be merged before Bush is asked to sign it into law, Democratic leaders hope, at the end of May.

The White House reacted angrily, branding the new plan bad management and a "stop-and-start measure" and House Republican leader John Boehner said the plan was tantamount to treating US troops in the field like "children who are getting a monthly allowance."

Democrats are determined to bring US troops home from Iraq, but have been loath to use their constitutional power to cut funding for military operations, fearing being portrayed as deserting troops who are under fire.

New wrangling over the war came as the Pentagon announced that 10 US combat brigades with 35,000 troops had been ordered to Iraq later this year, enough to sustain a "surge" in forces through 2007 if necessary.

Decisions have not been made on future force levels, but the deployment orders will make it possible to sustain up to 20 combat brigades in Iraq through the end of the year, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Democrats meanwhile tried to exploit signs of an expiry date on Republican patience on the surge strategy.

Boehner caused a stir on Sunday by saying his congressional colleagues needed to see progress in the surge by mid-to-late this year.

"By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn't, what's Plan B?" Boehner said on Fox News.

September is emerging as a key date for Iraq strategy, as it is then that General David Petraeus, commander of the 146,000 US troops in the country, is expected to assess the surge's progress.

Democrats seized on Boehner's remarks to claim cracks were opening in Republican support for the administration.

"It's obvious they also believe that there must be a change of course in the war in Iraq," Reid said.

The White House dismissed the idea of a firm deadline for a decision on whether to rejig Iraq policy.

"Please avoid the idea that Iraq is like Oz and one day it's going to be black and white and the next day you're going to wake up and it's color," Snow said.

The Democratic-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence meanwhile said it had completed a long awaited report on the accuracy of pre-war intelligence forecasts on the post-invasion situation in Iraq.

The report will be made public when security services have vetted it for intelligence secrets.