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US Senate Resumes Debate on Iraq

A bill to cut off funding for the Iraq war survived a procedural vote in the U.S. Senate Tuesday. The action came as Army officials told lawmakers they hope combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan can be shortened beginning later this year, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

By a vote of 70 to 24, the Senate agreed to begin debating a bill that would cut off money for the unpopular war in Iraq. The legislation is sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and staunch opponent of the Bush administration policy in Iraq.

"The president's policies have actually empowered former insurgents and militia-infiltrated security forces with questionable loyalties. By supporting sheiks in al-Anbar and elsewhere, we may have reduced violence in the near term, but only by making it more difficult to achieve national reconciliation in the long run," he said.

Feingold and other Democrats argue that the war in Iraq has diverted attention and resources away from the wider war on terrorism.

Republicans, meanwhile, are opposed to Feingold's bill, saying it would, in effect, legislate defeat in Iraq. "Senator Feingold's amendment serves to tie the hands of our commanders on the ground," said Senator James Inhofe is an Oklahoma Republican.

Despite their opposition, Republicans did not block the measure from advancing. Debate on the bill will give them and their party's presumptive presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, the opportunity to criticize Democrats for trying to end funding for the war at a time when military progress is being made. McCain's support for the U.S. troop surge in Iraq has been a focus of his campaign.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's top Republican, highlighted the progress in Iraq since the troop surge began. "Violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically. Over the past year, civilian deaths are one-sixth of what they were in November 2006. High-profile bombings are down by two-thirds since June. The discovery and seizure of guns and other weapons caches has more than doubled nationally and tripled in Anbar," he said.

A vote on Feingold's bill is expected later this week or next week, but the measure does not appear to have enough support for passage. Although Democrats oppose the war, they are divided over whether to end funding for the mission.

Earlier, U.S. Army officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are straining the Army. "We are an army out of balance, and we are consuming our readiness as fast as we build it," said Army Secretary Pete Geren.

Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, told the panel the Army hopes to cut combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months later this year once the U.S. military completes its planned drawdown to 15 combat brigades in July.

Casey, who was top U.S. commander in Iraq before becoming chief of staff last year, said reducing the time troops spend in combat would help reduce stress on the force. He said shorter tours should be possible even if President Bush decides to suspend the troop reductions after the drawdown reaches 15 brigades.