U.S. Congressional Democrats say the passage of funding legislation for Iraq, even without setting a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, marks a major step forward in efforts to end the war there. VOA's Dan Robinson reports that with approval of the measure, key Republicans are once again signaling that President Bush must consider altering his approach on Iraq if conditions there do not improve over the next four months.
In a Capitol Hill news conference Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said while Democrats could not impose a withdrawal time line, the legislation is nonetheless a vote against the war, and a significant step for a new direction on Iraq.
"This was a bill that said no more funding, and I think yesterday was an important day, [and] it was a recognition on the part of the Republicans that some accountability had to be in order. I don't think it was enough but it was a recognition that the American people were demanding it. But also, as we said yesterday (Thursday), it was a start of a whole new direction in Iraq, I think that the president's policy is going to begin to unravel now."
House Republicans have characterized the result of the funding battle as a victory because Democrats were unable to achieve their goal of establishing a specific time line for U.S. troop withdrawals.
However, President Bush has faced increasing impatience among Republicans, in both House and Senate, in recent months.
Addressing reporters, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it is clear that without evidence of progress, a reduction in violence and steps by the Iraqi government to achieve political, economic and security benchmarks, the president will have to make a decision:
"I think that the handwriting is on the wall, that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it. In other words, I think he himself has certainly indicated he is not happy with where we are and I think we are looking for a new direction in the fall," he said.
The legislation approved Thursday contains 18 benchmarks the Iraqi government must meet if it is to avoid a reduction in U.S. reconstruction assistance.
Senator John Warner, who authored the benchmarks with other key senators, underscores the importance of progress by Iraqi leaders and says the president must make changes based on changing conditions on the ground. "We call upon the president to do that and call upon the president to bring forth any changes in strategy he deems necessary because of such conditions as would be on the ground between now and in July," he said.
In approving the $120 billion funding measure without the timetable, Congress is requiring a review of the situation in Iraq in mid-July.
If conditions in Iraq are continuing to worsen at that point, Warner says, "it would be an opportune [appropriate] time for the president to shift strategy."
President Bush commented on the legislation Friday before signing it into law. We set a good bill that does not set timetables or tell the military how to do its job, but also send a clear signal to the Iraqis that there [are] expectations here in America, expectations about how to move forward," he said.
Perhaps the most important assessment date will be in September, when U.S. Iraq commander General David Petraeus, along with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, provides a status report, both to the president and in public appearances before Congress.
Republican Senator Susan Collins says the legislation sends a clear message to Iraqi leaders. "I think this is significant and sends a very strong message to the Iraqi leaders that the status quo is not acceptable."
In Thursday's 280 to 142 House vote on the Iraq funding bill, 140 Democrats joined two Republicans in voting against the measure.
Amid criticism from vocal anti-war Democrats that she and other leaders surrendered, in effect, to the president, Pelosi and House majority leader Steny Hoyer assert the vote demonstrates that Democrats have heard the American people. "There are 232 Democrats in the House of Representatives. There are 232 Democrats that believe our policies in Iraq are failing. There are 232 Democrats in the House of Representatives that believe we need to move in a new direction. The American public should know that the Democratic Party is united," he said.
Democrats say that far from ending the tug of war with the president over Iraq, conclusion of this particular funding battle begins a sequence of events involving other legislation, including an effort in September to de-authorize the U.S. military presence in Iraq that Congress authorized in 2002, some months before the U.S. invaded to oust Saddam Hussein.