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US Political Divide Remains Over Iraq War Funding

Majority Democrats in the U.S. Congress continue to press for time-specific goals for withdrawing American military personnel from Iraq, despite reports that a surge in U.S. forces appears to have contributed to a reduction in violence in the politically and ethnically-fractured nation. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington.

Reports from Iraq say recent months have seen dramatic reductions in fatalities, both for civilians and U.S. troops, as terrorist and sectarian attacks appear to be waning. At the same time, Iraq's fledgling democratic institutions have made only limited strides towards the political reconciliation widely viewed as a necessary first step to unify the country and lay the foundation for a lasting peace.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, says U.S. military progress in Iraq is irrelevant without political progress by Iraq's leaders. Speaking on the Fox News Sunday television program, Levin, a Democrat, said President Bush's overall Iraq strategy remains a failure.

"The president's policy very specifically had as its purpose to give the Iraqi political leaders the breathing space to work out a political settlement, and that purpose has not been achieved," said Carl Levin. "They are just as far apart as ever."

Minority Republicans in Congress have successfully blocked Democratic efforts to pass a war funding bill that include target dates for withdrawing most of the 160,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.

The latest bill would have provided $50 billion in revenue for the war effort, but designated the end of next year as a goal for a troop pullout.

Also appearing on Fox News Sunday was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said it would be a tragic mistake to constrain U.S. military options in Iraq.

"I saw the old [U.S.] strategy fail," said Graham. "I am seeing the surge work beyond my expectation. And I think we will have political dividends at the national level in Baghdad soon. But we need to leave the military alone and not micromanage what the military is doing, because it is in our national security interests to allow this surge to continue."

But Democrats say Iraq's leaders will never take difficult steps to promote national reconciliation so long as the United States maintains an open-ended military commitment in Iraq. Levin says the aim of pushing for troop withdrawals is to pressure Iraqi leaders to act.

"No one is trying to undercut the military," he said. "It is our military commanders who are saying that it is the Maliki government's failure to work out the political settlement which is the greatest threat to the success of their mission."

President Bush has pledged to begin bringing home limited numbers of U.S. troops during the next year if the security situation in Iraq permits. Speaking on CNN's Late Edition program, former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Iraq is far from being able to stand on its own.

"The Iraqi forces are not ready yet to take the full responsibility," said Allawi. "I think, especially, the police forces are definitely not ready yet [to patrol the streets on their own]. We hope that ultimately the Iraqi forces will be able, but I cannot see this happening yet. The reality is still harsh. We are still far away from reconciliation."

Democrats say they will return to the funding issue next month and continue working, if necessary, into the New Year.