WASHINGTON - While the future commander of U.S. military operations throughout South Asia and the Middle East assured lawmakers Thursday that the situation in Iraq is continuing to improve, the U.S. Senate approved an additional 165 billion dollars today to fund wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan at least through next winter.
The bill, which was approved by a margin of 70 to 26, did not impose any new conditions on how the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, who leaves office next January, can spend the money, much to the disappointment of Democrats and some Republicans who had worked hard in recent weeks to attach amendments to the appropriation.
But, pressed by both the White House and the Pentagon to approve the bill without conditions by Memorial Day -- the national holiday that honours fallen war veterans -- the Democratic leadership decided against a major fight with the administration over control of Iraq policy at this time.
Earlier this week, the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved a package of amendments, including one that would have required the administration to gain prior Congressional approval for any future security deals with Iraq's government. Senators rejected the package, however, in a 63-34 vote.
"We can't help but note the irony that, as the Senate leaves for its Memorial Day recess, they have ensured the needless deaths of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis by voting to expand the war and occupation for another full year," said Michael McPhearson, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, an anti-war group, after the vote.
"How many more fallen service men and women will we honour next year?" asked McPhearson, who also serves as executive director of Veterans for Peace.
Before passing the entire bill, however, the Senate approved an amendment by a veto-proof margin of 75-22 that would add nearly 50 billion dollars in education and other benefits for veterans.
The Senate version of the appropriations bill is expected to be taken up by the House of Representatives immediately after the Memorial Day recess in early June.
As currently drafted, the pending House version of the bill contains a number of constraints on the president's freedom of action in Iraq, including a restriction on his authority to negotiate long-term security deals with Iraq that would commit Washington to defend Iraq in the face of "external and internal threats".
But whether those constraints will survive action on the floor of the House when the bill comes up for debate remains unclear.
"There is a great danger that the House bill will include no restrictions on the administration, including a no-permanent bases provision that the Congress has voted on in the last two years," Jim Fine of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, told IPS Thursday. "If the final bill [coming out of Congress] contains no policy restrictions, it will be a clear victory for the White House."
Meanwhile, Washington's top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told senators Thursday that he may be able to recommend further troop reduction in Iraq in September in addition to the planned drawdown of U.S. troops to 140,000 this July.
Petraeus, who is seeking confirmation from the Senate to become chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), claimed that "the number of security incidents in Iraq last week was the lowest in over four years". That has been largely due to joint U.S. and Iraqi operations in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad's Sadr City, the stronghold of dissident Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, he added.
"His message was clearly optimistic...and he painted a rosy picture of events," said Fine of FCNL. "He clearly contradicted expectations by holding out the likelihood of a future drawdown of troops in Iraq [in the fall]."
Centcom covers much of the key hotspots in Washington's "global war on terror" -- the Middle East and the Gulf; all of South Asia, including Afghanistan; parts of the Caucasus, and all of Central Asia.
Former Centcom commander Adm. William Fallon, who abruptly resigned his post earlier this year, was known to be critical of the administration's laser-like focus on Iraq, as well as its sabre-rattling against Iran. He also believed that the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency in the frontier areas of Pakistan were not receiving adequate attention or resources.
Significantly, Petraeus Thursday added his voice to concerns about the latter, warning that the next attack against the U.S. could well come out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, where he said the al Qaeda leadership is based.
"Clearly, al Qaeda senior leadership has been strengthened in the FATA, even though their main effort is still assessed to be in Iraq, by them as well as by us," he said. "But the organization of an attack (on the U.S.)... would likely come from the FATA."
That assertion echoes recent assessments both by the U.S. intelligence community and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, who said earlier this week that he believes Washington should add 10,000 to 12,000 more U.S. troops to the 33,000 who already deployed in Afghanistan, but that those deployments will have to wait for further withdrawals from Iraq.
Petraeus also described Iranian influence in Iraq as "malign" and "lethal", repeating accusations that Iran has been involved in "arming, training, funding and directing of militia extremists" who have targeted U.S. soldiers.
While saying that the U.S. should leave the military option on the table vis-ÃƒÂ -vis Iran as a "last resort", Petraeus added that "we must also explore policies that, over the long term, offer the possibility of more constructive relations, if that is possible."
He also told senators that Iraq's provincial elections will be held in November instead of October as initially planned due to the latest strife in Basra. Iraq's provincial elections are one of the several benchmarks set by the U.S. government for Iraqi factions to meet as part of a national reconciliation process that would allow Sunni Arabs more say in the administrative affairs of the regions where they live.
© 2008 Inter Press Service