PULL-BACK FROM IRAQ MUST START WITHIN 30 DAYS – say US Democrats

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THE Democratic-led House of Representatives defied a White House veto threat on Wednesday and inserted timelines for an immediate troop withdrawal, in a 50 billion dollar Iraq war funding bill.

The House voted 218 to 203 to pass the emergency war budget, calling for a pull-back of most combat troops to start within 30 days, with a goal of completion by December 15, 2008.

President George W Bush, who has thwarted every previous Democratic attempt to change his war policy, has repeatedly warned he will never accept mandated troop withdrawal timelines.

The vote, the latest drama in a prolonged showdown between Bush and the Democrats over the war, will now have to go to the Senate where it will meet tough opposition.

‘All of us here want to succeed in Iraq. All of us here want to make our nation and the American people safer,’ said Senate Democratic Majority leader Steny Hoyer.

‘But after more than four and one-half years of pursuing the president’s failing stay-the-course strategy, we are not achieving either objective.’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added: ‘How much longer should we expect our young people to risk their lives, their limbs, their families, for an Iraqi government that is not willing to step up to the plate?’

But White House press secretary Dana Perino accused the Democrats of taking the war debate ‘down a well-worn path that calls for arbitrary withdrawal from the battlefield, despite the gains our military has made over the past year.

‘These votes, like the dozens of previous failed votes, put the interests of radical interest groups ahead of the needs of our military and their mission,’ she said, adding Bush would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had earlier held closed-door briefings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

There had been suggestions the war funding bill might founder on the opposition of liberal and fiercely anti-war Democratic members of the House, but they decided to back it, boosting its chances.

‘While this bill is not perfect, it is the strongest Iraq bill to date,’ said three key anti-war lawmakers, Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters.

‘This is a concrete step in the right direction, and an important marker for this Congress to lay down.’

The bill would require Bush to transform the mission in Iraq from combat operations to supporting Iraqi security forces and protecting US diplomatic facilities.

It would also ban the use of torture and defer the rest of Bush’s 196 billion dollar request for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The funding would run out after four months.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid warned on Tuesday that if the bill did not pass the Senate, Bush would not get any more money for the war this year.

That would force the Pentagon to dip into its current operating budget to finance the operations.

Earlier, Republican lawmakers demanded the retraction of a Democratic Party report which warned that the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could reach 3.5 trillion dollars.

They warned the survey by Democratic staffers on Congress’s Joint Economic Committee (JEC) was riddled with errors and should not be allowed to stand.

‘In the rush to score political points, apparently no one bothered to fact-check the report,’ said Senator Sam Brownback and Representative Jim Saxton, top Republicans on the committee, in a statement.

‘When erroneous information is injected into the public domain, those responsible are obligated to publicly withdraw this information.’

The report said war costs would hit 1.6 trillion dollars by the end of next year, doubling the 804 billion dollars spent or requested by the administration.

Hidden outlays would also inflate the price to the 3.5 trillion dollar mark by 2017, they warned, basing the figure on the cost of treating wounded veterans, the Iraq war’s impact on oil prices and other economic factors.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents say US private security shootings in Iraq are unjustified.

FBI investigators have found that Blackwater guards shot 14 people with no justification in the controversial September 16 incident in Baghdad, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

Seventeen people were killed in the incident, in which Blackwater private security guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad neighborhood as they protected a State Department convoy. Blackwater said the guards came under attack.

At least 14 of the shootings broke rules for private security guards in Iraq regarding the use of deadly force, the Times reported, citing unnamed civilian and military officials briefed on the case.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents said the shootings were unjustified, the Times reported.

The FBI investigation into the incident has not concluded, but the findings are being reviewed by US Justice Department officials, the Times reports.

l A group of British MPs is visiting Iran for talks with top officials, a rare trip by an official British delegation to the Islamic republic, diplomats said Thursday.

The eight MPs from the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons arrived on Monday for their four-day visit, which included talks with top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Led by committee chairman Mike Gapes, they also met Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel and judiciary advisor on international affairs Mohammad Javad Larijani.

‘They are conducting research for use in a forthcoming report on global security, of which Iran will be a part,’ a British embassy spokesman said.

The last such visit by the committee was in October 2003.

The state news agency IRNA said Jalili, who took over from the more moderate Ali Larijani last month, told the delegation late Wednesday that dialogue should continue to find a solution to the crisis on the Iranian nuclear drive.

But he added: ‘Double standards in the behaviour of certain countries on Iran’s nuclear programme is not constructive.’

Haded Adel on Tuesday meanwhile said the West needs to make a new assessment ‘of its ties with Iran based on realities after the victory of the Islamic Revolution,’ state media reported.

In March, relations between Tehran and London suffered their biggest crisis since the Rushdie affair when Iran captured 15 British sailors accused of trespassing into Iranian waters.

They were later released after two weeks in detention.