Bush celebrates victory after signing Iraq war bill

WASHINGTON (AFP) —  US President George W. Bush  celebrated victory on Saturday after he signed into law a long-sought  bill committing $100 billion to the wars in Iraq and  Afghanistan.

“Congress voted yesterday to provide our troops with the funding  and flexibility they need to protect our country, and I was pleased to sign the bill today,” Bush said in a statement on Friday.

“Rather than mandate arbitrary timetables for troop withdrawals or micromanage our military commanders, this legislation enables our servicemen and women to follow the judgement of commanders on the ground,” he added.

The president’s Democratic foes in Congress had ceded to his demands to strip timelines for troop withdrawals out of the war funding bill passed Thursday. But Democrats have vowed fresh efforts to end the conflict.

Bush reiterated that the measure sets the stage for pressing the fragile government in Baghdad to make progress on national reconciliation.

“Iraqis need to demonstrate measurable progress on a series of benchmarks for improved security, political reconciliation and governance,” the statement said, referring to provisions in the bill.

Bush had earlier told reporters: “I look forward to continuing to work with the prime minister and his government in meeting those expectations,” referring to Iraq’s Nouri Maliki.

Bush’s signature on the bill cements a short-term truce with anti-war Democrats in a fierce struggle for control of the unpopular war.

But the president’s foes warned they were girding for a new assault on his authority in coming months, and claimed a breakthrough in reining him in over the unpopular and bloody conflict.

“I think that the president’s policy is going to begin to unravel now,” said Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives. She admitted, however, that the budget bill, which she voted against, fell short of Democratic aspirations.

After Congress returns from a weeklong break, Pelosi said, Democrats would seek to renew the battle to force Bush to change course in Iraq, targeting several defence spending bills due for debate.

She also pledged to schedule a vote on withdrawing Bush’s congressional authorisation to wage war in Iraq, granted in 2002.

Senator Hillary Clinton has introduced a similar bill in the US Senate.

“September is the moment of truth for this war,” Pelosi said, referring to a date when the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is expected to report on progress of Bush’s surge of nearly 30,000 extra troops into Iraq.

The bill also requires Bush to report to Congress on Iraq in July and September.

The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, gave the clearest signal yet that Republicans would also be looking for a change of tack by Bush later this year.

“I think the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president is going to lead it,” McConnell told reporters.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported Saturday the White House was working on what officials describe as several “concepts” for reducing the number of US combat troops in Iraq by as much as 50 per cent next year.

Citing unnamed senior administration officials, the newspaper said the concepts could lower US troop levels in Iraq to roughly 100,000 by the time the 2008 US presidential election moves into high gear.

They would also greatly scale back the mission that Bush set for the US military when he ordered it in January to win back control of Baghdad and Anbar Province, the report said.

Bush on Thursday warned of a bloody few months ahead in Iraq. The US death toll in Iraq hit 3,442 after the military announced six more soldiers had been killed in action.

The compromise between Democrats and the White House contains the first congressionally imposed “benchmarks” the Iraqi government must meet or risk losing economic aid.

These include demands for a crackdown on insurgents, for better training of Iraqi troops, for constitutional review processes and for the fair distribution of Iraq’s hydrocarbon riches.

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