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Fight Over Iraq Funding Entering New Phase

The fight between President Bush and the U.S. Congress over funding for the Iraq war enters a new phase this week. The president is about to veto a bill linking money for military operations to a withdrawal plan. And as VOA's Paula Wolfson reports from the White House, both sides are talking tough as they prepare to start the legislative process all over again.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the Bush administration could accept a revised bill that includes benchmarks or specific goals for the Iraqi government in areas ranging from the allocation of energy resources, to constitutional reform.

"As to benchmarks, let us remember that these are benchmarks the Iraqi government set for itself," said Condoleezza Rice.

But during an appearance on ABC's This Week program, Rice warned any legislation that punishes the Iraqis for failing to meet these goals would rob U.S. military leaders and diplomats of the flexibility they need to do their jobs.

"The problem is that if you try to make consequences about these benchmarks, you are tying the hand of [U.S. Commander in Iraq] General Petraeus and the hands of Ambassador Crocker," she said.

She spoke as Congress and the White House braced for a second legislative confrontation on Iraq.

The $124-billion war funding bill passed last week by Congress includes a timetable for withdrawal, and will be vetoed shortly after it arrives at the White House, perhaps as soon as Tuesday.

The next day, attention will shift to a replacement bill. Top Democrats have indicated this second version of the legislation could drop the withdrawal timetable, and include benchmarks ordering the Iraqi government to move the process of national reconciliation forward.

Strong anti-war members of the House and Senate are urging the party leadership to ensure this new bill will put sufficient pressure on the Iraqis to take action that would enable American troops to come home.

John Murtha - the Pennsylvania Democrat who heads the subcommittee responsible for military spending - told the CBS broadcast Face the Nation that benchmarks without consequences are meaningless.

"The benchmarks - the Iraqi's agreed to it, the president agreed to it," said John Murtha. "We are saying to him, well, let us put some teeth in the benchmarks."

On CNN's Late Edition, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari urged Congress to work with the Bush administration on the war funding issue.

"This debate we follow with keen interest and I believe this was extremely unhelpful - linking the funding of the troops with a specific timetable," said Zebari.

Zebari said the Iraqi government has never believed the U.S. commitment is open-ended. He said the Iraqis know they are ultimately responsible for their own fate.