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Now Senate OKs Iraq pullout date

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WASHINGTON — Congress concluded round one of its historic showdown with President Bush on Thursday with the Senate's passage of legislation that requires that troops start coming home by Oct. 1.

Maneuvering over the next round was already under way.

The 51-46 approval, like the close vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, was far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto that Bush has promised. Democrats now will try to rewrite the $124 billion spending bill, which provides the money Bush requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plus extra military funding.

Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Congress will send the spending bill to Bush early next week. The goal, he said, is to craft a new spending bill in May — "but trust me, it's not easy."

Troop withdrawal timelines will drop out of the new bill after the veto, but Democrats want the revised spending bill to pressure the Iraqi government to end the factional violence that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Democrats also are expected to press for withdrawal in other bills in May and June.

After the vote, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush repeated his veto promise Thursday. More time is needed for the U.S. troop escalation now under way, she said. "What the president has asked for is for the Congress to give — and to the American people to give — this plan a chance to work," she said.

In the debate over the Democrats' plan to change strategy in Iraq, senators split largely along party lines in their views about the enemy in Iraq. Only two Republicans, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, voted for the measure. Democrats voted for the bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who supports the president's war plans, voted against it, along with most Republicans.

Republicans said terrorists would declare victory if a withdrawal began, and Democrats said the terrorist threat would decrease once U.S. forces left.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a withdrawal would be "a mandate for defeat that al-Qaida desperately wants."

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., argued that "opponents of the president's efforts to win the battle against terrorists should not be permitted to hijack" the war-funding bill.

Democrats said U.S. forces were caught in a civil war and that their bill left the military with the flexibility to keep its forces in the region to attack terrorists.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, said that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden wasn't in Iraq and that his extreme Islamist network had opposed Saddam Hussein's secular regime.

"There will be very little motivation for al-Qaida to continue in Iraq once we have left," Webb said. "Not only that but the Iraqis themselves are quite capable of standing up to al-Qaida without our help. They don't want al-Qaida in Iraq. That's why they're cooperating with our forces in Anbar province right now."

In the emotional atmosphere of the debate, Republicans have accused Democrats of defeatism and surrender, Webb said. "The question becomes, defeat by whom? Surrender to whom?" Webb said. "We won this war four years ago. The question is when we end the occupation."

The approved legislation would require Bush to insist on the benchmarks for progress in Iraq that he outlined in a speech in January, including fair treatment for minorities and a law for sharing oil revenues among Iraq's religious and ethnic groups. It also would require the Defense Department to meet its guidelines for troops' rest periods, length of deployments and preparations for war, although Bush could waive the requirements.

The measure requires withdrawal to begin by Oct. 1 — or by July 1 if the Iraqi government makes no progress toward national reconciliation — but it sets only a nonbinding goal for completing the withdrawal of most American forces by next April 1. After that, some U.S. troops would remain in Iraq or nearby for counterterrorism attacks, plus training and equipping Iraqi security forces.

The bill also adds money beyond what Bush requested for military needs.

"A veto means denying our troops the resources and strategy they need," said Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "After more than four years of a failed policy, it's time for Iraq to take responsibility for its future. We ask the president to read and to sign this bill."

Members of both parties have been frustrated with the Iraqi government's failure to make progress in creating a representative government and ending the killings in Baghdad.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., blasted the Iraq parliament's plan for a two-month recess this summer and said American troops can't be put at risk unless the Iraqi government does its part. "A military solution we all acknowledge will not work," he said.

Contributing: Margaret Talev