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Senate pushing Bush on Iraq policy

Lawmakers of both parties seek more information on war, progress

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to press the Bush administration to provide more public information about the course of the war in Iraq as lawmakers of both parties made it clear they wanted chief responsibility for securing the country shifted to the Iraqi government within the next year.

Lawmakers voted 79-19 for a Republican plan to seek new quarterly reports on matters like the number of Iraqi troops ready to take the lead in combat operations. The proposal expressed the Senate view that "2006 should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."

But the Senate rejected, by a vote of 58-40, a Democratic proposal to require the Bush administration to project dates for a phased withdrawal of troops should conditions allow.

Bush, traveling in Japan, said he is happy to keep Congress informed of his plan to bring democracy to Iraq.

"It is important that we succeed in Iraq . . . and we're going to," Bush said during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "The only way that we won't succeed is if we lose our nerve and the terrorists are able to drive us out of Iraq by killing innocent lives."

While the practical consequences of the bipartisan vote on the Republican proposal may be limited and largely symbolic, the willingness of most Senate Republicans to join with most Democrats to prod the Bush administration on the war represented new determination to distance themselves from the White House in the face of dwindling public support for operations in Iraq.

"For the first time," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, "our Republican colleagues have joined Democrats in listing and insisting on a clear Iraqi strategy from this administration, a schedule to achieve it and real accountability."

The proposal, part of a broad annual Pentagon policy measure approved 98-0, came as senators also sought greater influence in setting American policy on the treatment of terror detainees and their access to courts, matters Congress has largely ceded to the administration. The detainee provisions, if enacted into law, would essentially codify the military court system established by the White House for "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

By a vote of 84-14, the Senate approved a bipartisan compromise that would allow the Guantanamo prisoners to challenge in federal court their detention as enemy combatants and automatically appeal any convictions and sentences handed down by military tribunals in excess of 10 years. The deal retreated from a Senate vote last week that would have cut off the detainees' access to the federal courts, but it would still prevent those being held from asking the courts to intervene in their treatment and prison conditions.

The Senate positions on Iraq policy, detainee rights, and an earlier approval of a provision banning cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees known as the McCain amendment were expected to complicate negotiations over military policy with the House, which included none of those proposals in its own Pentagon measure. And the administration has already encouraged the House leadership to resist the provision on torture in a separate Senate military spending bill.

White House officials said Tuesday that the administration would be willing to provide additional information sought by Congress. "We have always welcomed a regular dialogue with Congress," said Dana Perino, a White House spokesman. "We agree that progress is being made by both the military and civilians in Iraq. The progress is extraordinary and should not be drowned out by partisan politics in Washington."

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader and a sponsor of the Iraqi policy approved by the Senate, sought to frame the approach as one of cooperation with the White House.

"It is not a change of policy," said Frist, who called the approval of his plan an "absolute repudiation" of the Democratic push for possible withdrawal dates.

But the main opposition for the policy proposal came from Republicans who said it put too many constraints on the administration, was a step toward a timetable for withdrawal, was ill-timed because Bush is out of the country, and had been prompted mainly by political anxiety about the impact of the war on next year's midterm elections.

"I think it speaks to a bit of nervousness about public perception of how the war is going in terms of '06 elections," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of 13 Republicans who joined six Democrats in opposing the proposal. "And to be honest with you, the war is going to be going on long after '06. I'm more worried about getting it right in Iraq than the '06 elections."

Though the competing proposal from Senate Democrats was rejected, most of them backed the Republican leadership's plan and hailed its approval as a new recognition by the Senate that Bush administration policy on Iraq has been misguided.

"The United States Senate said the policy must change; staying the course will not do," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. "It was a vote of no confidence on the president's policies in Iraq."

Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee who wrote the proposal based on a Democratic plan, said the push on the Iraq policy was not meant as criticism of the administration but was a signal to the Iraqi people.

"We have done our share," Warner said. "Now the challenge is up to you."

In the measure, the Senate says its view is that American forces should not remain in Iraq "any longer than required" and that the "administration needs to explain to Congress and the America people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq."

The bill also requires a new quarterly report from the administration, though it provides no penalty should the White House not comply. Among the topics to be covered in the report are efforts at reaching a domestic political settlement in Iraq; training of Iraqi security forces; the status of Iraqi police forces; the ability of the Iraqi government to direct domestic security forces; and a schedule for meeting conditions that would allow a transfer of security responsibilities and ultimately a withdrawal of troops.

The vote on the legal rights of detainees concluded days of intense negotiations after the Senate voted last week to block their access to the courts, an action that drew opposition from a variety of human rights and legal advocacy groups who saw it as an affront to the Constitution.

Graham, the author of the original plan, said the new approach could protect both the Bush administration's objectives for holding and trying the detainees and the rights allowed those being held. The compromise "allows every detainee under our control to have their day in court," he said.

But other lawmakers were highly critical. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Senate was meddling with "fundamental rights" without sufficient review. "These are weighty and momentous considerations that go far beyond the detainees at Guantanamo," Specter said.

An effort to reject the Graham provisions on court access by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., failed on a 54-44 vote.

In the aftermath of the votes on the legal rights of detainees, human rights groups expressed disappointment. They acknowledged that the compromise was an improvement over last week's decision but said that it still limited the jurisdiction of the courts.

"It is certainly past time for Congress to get involved in the issue of detention at Guantanamo," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First. "But congressional involvement should mean more than simply endorsing the administration's deeply flawed processes like the military tribunals and combatant status review tribunals. Encroaching on the rule of the courts does not solve the problem, and in fact makes it worse."