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US Congress sends Bush Iraq war budget

UNITED STATES: The US Congress sent President George W. Bush a multi-billion-dollar Iraq war budget Thursday, after bowing to his demands to rip out troop withdrawal timelines that prompted a previous veto.

After a day of anguished debate reflecting sharp divisions over the unpopular war, the House of Representatives voted 280-142 to fund the war through September, and the Senate concurred by 80 votes to 14.

The votes left many anti-war Democrats with a sour taste but acknowledging they lack the power to thwart Bush's war strategy, despite controlling Congress, and Republicans crowing they had beaten Democratic "surrender dates."

When Bush signs the bill, he will end, temporarily at least, a bitter constitutional tug-of-war between Congress and the White House, though Democrats vowed to renew efforts to handcuff him over a war which has dragged on four years and killed 3,436 US troops and untold thousands of Iraqis.

"The days of blank checks and green lights for his failed policy are over," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who reluctantly backed the bill.

"Senate Democrats will never give in, never, never, never, never," Reid said, paraphrasing former wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and several other top Democrats, were in the unusual position of voting against a deal they had spent days negotiating with the White House. "This is like a fig leaf, this is a token, this is a small step forward, instead we should have a giant step forward into a new direction," she said.

Top Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both voted no, reflecting anti-war fervor they face on the campaign trail.

Another Democratic presidential hope, Senator Joseph Biden grudgingly voted to pass the bill.

The White House expressed satisfaction at the passage of what it described as a roadmap for security Iraq.

"Congress is to be congratulated for successfully providing our troops with the funding and flexibility they need to protect our country, rather than mandating arbitrary timetables for military operations," said Alex Conant, a White House spokesman.

Several times, raw angst over the war erupted onto the floor of the House. Republican leader John Boehner dissolved in tears, as he warned America needed to take the battle to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Democrat John Murtha, a heavyweight opponent of the war, could barely contain his fury as he shouted hoarsely across the chamber: "I feel a direction change in the air." Democrats had demanded troop withdrawal timetables for months, and included them in a 124 billion dollar budget vetoed by Bush earlier this month.

But they finally conceded to political logic, unwilling to be seen as unsupportive of troops stuck in battle, knowing that they lack the two-thirds majority needed to block a presidential veto.

"It is a political reality, it is not what we want to pass," said House Majority leader Steny Hoyer.

The compromise between Democrats and the White House contains the first congressionally-imposed political and security "benchmarks" the Iraqi government must meet or risk losing economic aid.

The 18 requirements include demands for a crackdown on militias, the need to train Iraqi troops, the launch of constitutional review processes, and ensuring fair distribution of Iraq's hydrocarbon riches.

Meanwhile Insurgent gunmen shot up a bus travelling north of Baghdad on Thursday then planted a bomb to kill civilians coming the aid of injured passengers, murdering 12 people, the US military said.

"The insurgents used small arms to attack innocent civilians on a small passenger bus," said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Donnelly, describing an attack that took place in Husseiniyah, 30 kilometres (19 miles) outside the capital.

"The terrorists left the scene after firing up the bus and left a bomb, targeting those who would be there to perform first aid and evacuation.

"The bomb exploded when fellow caring citizens arrived to provide aid, killing 12 and wounding three to five," he added.

"The perpetrators are cowards, and will lose this fight solely from their unconscionable behaviour," he said, branding the attack "another classic example of the terrorists' disregard for life, humanity, and core values."

Iraqi defence and security officials confirmed the death toll in the attack, the latest in a series in which insurgent death squads have targeted civilian bus passengers in the violent belt of towns surrounding the Iraqi capital.

Washington, Baghdad, Friday, AFP

***

Bloody months looming in Iraq: Bush

UNITED STATES: President George W. Bush Thursday forecast a bloody and difficult few months in Iraq, as Congress girded to vote on a new 120 billion dollar war budget stripped of Democratic troop withdrawal dates.

"We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months" to come, Bush told a White House news conference.

"We can expect more American and Iraqi casualties," he said, after the military said two more soldiers had been killed in western Iraq, to bring the monthly toll to 88, and the total US war dead to 3,436.

Bush called on the Iraqi government to repay the mounting sacrifices of US soldiers with political progress, and said his unfolding plan to surge nearly 30,000 troops into Iraq would reach a peak in June.

Washington, Friday, AFP

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