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U.S. moving to join diamond crackdown

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WASHINGTON — A congressional panel on Tuesday took an initial step for the United States to join an international crackdown on the trade in smuggled diamonds that is funding rebel conflicts in Sierra Leone and several other African countries.

Following up on last week's U.N. Security Council resolution for an 18-month embargo on so-called "conflict" diamonds that rebels are selling to buy guns, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to require U.S. Customs to enforce a ban on the trade.

The measure would block trade in diamonds from Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone — other than diamonds from Sierra Leone that carry a government certificate of origin.

"This one thing in itself could stop the war," said Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who sponsored the measure. It was attached without dissent to a $29 billion bill to fund the Treasury Department and general government operations next fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

"Until the link between diamonds and war is severed, these African wars will not end," Wolf said.

Sierra Leone's government has pressed for the ban, which it said would reduce arms supplies to rebel forces.

Trade in rough diamonds also is being blamed for fueling conflicts in the Congo, Angola and other African countries.

Wolf said the U.N. Security Council resolution "obligates our country, as a member of the United Nations, to enact legislation that will implement the embargo."

While the subcommittee agreed unanimously to push for enforcement of the diamond embargo, Democrats groused about other parts of the underlying Treasury and general government funding bill they said would undermine reforms Congress demanded of the Internal Revenue Service and shortchange other programs.

Democrats complained that the bill was some $2 billion beneath President Clinton's request, including $465 million below the amount the administration said was needed to continue a congressionally ordered overhaul of the beleaguered IRS.

Republicans also attached a measure several Democrats opposed that would bar the federal government from giving gun maker Smith & Wesson — or other gun manufacturers that agree to undertake safety measures the Clinton administration has sought — from getting preferential treatment in contracts.

Gun advocates have charged that Clinton's agreement with Smith & Wesson, a unit of Britain's Tomkins Plc, amounted to backdoor gun control. With the deal, the gun maker got assurances the administration would not pursue a federal lawsuit against it that is being considered against other manufacturers.

Also in the bill, Democrats and Republicans exchanged jabs over the campaign travel expenses of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a frequent flyer to New York in her bid to become one of that state's U.S. senators.

Pressed by Democrats, the panel removed language in the bill on White House travel that said "given that the taxpayer is subsidizing the first lady's campaign" by covering a share of her campaign travel costs.

But at the same time, Republicans released documents that said by White House accounts, her campaign travel through the end of May has cost $698,022. Her campaign reimbursed $112,209 of that leaving taxpayers with $585,815, the documents showed.

Another political issue likely to rise up later in the bill is the cost-of-living increase congressional leaders want to give their own ranks. A cost-of-living increase is automatic for congressmen unless lawmakers move to require a vote on it, a possibility in the partisan bickering of an election year.

"I don't know whether there will be a floor fight or not. If there is we'll step up and take our bumps," House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas told reporters.