Deadline to accelerate violence, Bush predicts

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and top military officials predicted yesterday that casualties in Iraq will accelerate between now and September, when a much anticipated deadline arrives for assessing the results of a troop buildup that Congress has finally agreed to pay for.

Iraqi insurgents will try to "kill as many innocent people as they can to try to influence the debate here at home," Bush said. "And so, yeah, it could be a bloody - it could be a very difficult August."

Having made hard-fought progress on war funding and immigration reform in the past week, the president used a Rose Garden news conference - his first extended question-and-answer session at the White House in nearly two months - to maintain momentum.

Late yesterday, he scored a victory when Congress adopted a nearly $120 billion emergency war spending package that includes nonbinding benchmarks for Iraqi political progress but no timetable for troop withdrawal.

The president vetoed an earlier version of the legislation, which contained dates to begin bringing soldiers home, calling it an irresponsible road map to defeat.

He pledged to reject any bill containing similar language, creating a lengthy standoff with Capitol Hill that ended in his favor. War opponents did not have enough votes to override a veto.

Democrats reluctantly voted for the measure, calling the benchmark language, written by Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican from Virginia, far weaker than what many in the caucus wanted as a way to bring an end to the war.

"It is a political reality," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Majority Leader from Southern Maryland. "It is not what we wanted to pass. We have moved the ball forward. Far enough? No."

Despite the president's objections, the legislation included Hurricane Katrina and drought relief, money for children's health insurance and the first federal minimum wage increase since 1997. The bill also includes money for Maryland construction projects related to realignment of military bases. Bush has indicated he will sign the legislation.

In a procedural move, the Democratic majority in the House split the plan into two components, allowing party members to vote against war funding but for domestic programs. The war-funding portion was adopted on a 280-142 vote in the House, with 140 Democrats voting "no." The domestic spending part passed 348-73.

In the Senate, the measure passed 80-14, with Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois among the opponents.

Five months after congressional Democrats came to power mainly through a public fed up with the war, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lamented that an opportunity to bring an end to the conflict "has been missed."

Pelosi voted against the war funding component and pledged that tougher war restrictions would be considered in an annual defense spending bill. "We will have legislation to repeal the president's authority for the war in Iraq," she said.

House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said in a statement that Democrats "were forced to drop the surrender dates" because the GOP stayed unified.

Among Maryland House members, Democrats Hoyer and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest voted for the war spending. Democrats Elijah E. Cummings, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn voted against.

Bartlett, Cummings, Hoyer, Ruppersberger, Sarbanes, Van Hollen and Wynn voted for the domestic spending. Gilchrest did not vote.

In the Senate, Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin voted for the final bill.

While lawmakers scrambled to pass the legislation by a self-imposed Memorial Day deadline, the measure offers only a temporary reprieve in discussions that have divided Washington during the nearly three months since Bush asked for the money.

Gen. David Petraeus, the chief military officer in Iraq, is preparing to report in September on the effectiveness of the latest effort to secure Baghdad, and both the White House and Democrats in Congress are looking ahead to more fights if milestones for Iraqi political progress are not met.

Pentagon leaders reinforced Bush's contention that insurgents have their eye on the September report and will do all they can to thwart U.S. objectives until then.

"My own view is that we are dealing with a smart, agile, thinking enemy," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "They are technologically sophisticated, and therefore they know what's going on in this country. And I think we should be prepared for them to make a very strong effort to increase the level of violence in July and August."

War critics are furious at Democratic congressional leaders who have dropped demands for troop withdrawal deadlines. But Bush repeated his assertion yesterday that withdrawing troops prematurely would be disastrous for the U.S. and Iraq, and vowed that "we will stay on the offense" against al-Qaida and other threats.

But the president said he "would like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq," an indication that he was giving fresh consideration to suggestions made late last year by the Iraq Study Group, which recommended that U.S. troops shift to a role supporting the Iraqi military.

He also said that if the Iraqi government requested a U.S. troop withdrawal, he would comply.

"If they were to make the request, we wouldn't be there," he said, adding that such an outcome would endanger the "very existence" of the Iraqi government.

While the September deadline is taking on increased significance, several lawmakers said four months is too long to wait before reevaluating conditions in Iraq. Warner's benchmarks include a provision calling on Bush to report to Congress in mid-July and again in September.

"This is a very dynamic and changing situation in Iraq, every single day losing brave men and women in uniform," Warner said. "So it's important that we have a midterm review."

Responding to Bush's energized support for continuing to fight in Iraq, Democrats repeated their criticism of the president's war planning and evolving arguments.

"His refusal to recognize the reality on the ground is evident in his continuing misrepresentation that his Iraq war strategy is a response to 9/11 and helps us defeat terrorism," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a statement. "In fact, it is his failed conduct of the war that has turned Iraq into a training ground and recruiting poster for a new generation of terrorists."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

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