By Karen DeYoung and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
A House Democratic proposal introduced yesterday that would give President Bush half of the money he has requested for the war effort, with a vote in July on whether to approve the rest, hinges on progress in meeting political benchmarks that Iraq has thus far found difficult to achieve.
The House measure, which could come to a vote as early as tomorrow, would substantially raise the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to meet lagging commitments -- including new laws on oil revenue and de-Baathification, constitutional revisions, provincial elections and the demobilization of militias -- that Bush has said are crucial to the success of the U.S. military strategy.
The plan would make about $43 billion of the administration's requested $95.5 billion immediately available to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, train troops from both nations and pay for other military needs. Congress's approval of the rest, intended to last through September, would await Iraqi passage of restructuring laws, or Bush's ability to prove that significant progress had been made. The July vote would mark the first time a mandatory funding cutoff would come before Congress.
Most of the anticipated Iraqi changes are locked in disputes among and within regional and sectarian groups, and some have moved further from agreement in recent weeks. A deadline of next Tuesday for presenting a constitutional revision package to the Iraqi Parliament is likely to be only partially met, Bush administration officials said. A group of oil and gas laws due by the end of the month remains mired in debate.
Administration officials also acknowledge there has been no progress on a de-Baathification law that would permit former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling party -- most of them Sunnis -- greater access to government and security jobs, or toward disarming and demobilizing Shiite militias.
Delays and setbacks in promulgating the restructuring legislation, let alone passing and implementing it, was a major subject at last week's "neighbors conference" on Iraq held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. As Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors sharply questioned the commitment of the Maliki government, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognized the slow progress and pleaded for patience and help: "If Iraq fails to achieve these goals of stability and democracy, we will all pay." Most of the Arabs dislike Maliki and consider him a pawn of Iran's Shiite rulers.
The administration has set September as an informal deadline for proving that the increase in U.S. troops and new security strategy are succeeding. But making the funding contingent on votes in the Iraqi parliament sets a much clearer standard for progress than the benchmark of improved security.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the committee's ranking Republican, met with White House budget director Rob Portman yesterday to search for common ground after Bush vetoed legislation setting a 2008 deadline for unspecified "redeployment" of U.S. forces.
In the meantime, "we're not willing to sit by like potted palms doing nothing," Obey told reporters yesterday. He presented the July cutoff plan to the Democratic caucus yesterday, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it could be brought to the floor as early as tomorrow.
House Republicans were divided on the approach. "It is unconscionable to think that they want to fund a war 60 days at a time," Rep. Adam H. Putnam (Fla.) told CNN. But Rep. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) said he saw an advantage in freeing up part of the money immediately while holding Iraqi feet to the fire. "Do we need to put things out in front of the Iraqi government that makes them realize they have to do certain things to continue the support of the American people? Absolutely," Gerlach said.
The Senate is not expected to take the same short-term funding approach, but it is likely to make political benchmarks the centerpiece of its own legislation, with consequences if they are not met.
Administration officials, while conceding Iraqi delays, described the Democrats' proposals as dangerous, and even worse than the "redeployment" conditions in the vetoed bill. "Now we're in Excedrin headache No. 1," a State Department official said. "How do you fight a war two months at a time?"
Calling the Democrats' action a "moral hazard," the official said, "Okay, let's pass a law saying no more funding past July 31 if the [oil] package of laws doesn't pass. What do you suppose happens next? If I was sitting in a neighboring country, really looking forward to saying bye-bye to the Americans, you've just shown me a way to do it."
Strong diplomatic pressure is already being applied on the Maliki government, a senior administration official said, and mandating political reforms by a certain date would drive Iraqis further apart. "It allows extremist factions to say that these legislative benchmarks, which were an Iraqi political agenda, is an American agenda," the official said.
"If you say the next two months are make or break, I think I can predict what we'll see," the official said. "We will see a sustained trend of suicide attacks" by al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremists, making the Shiite-led government even less willing to move on de-Baathification.
"It's a really harmful approach," the official said. "There is a risk you can push [the Iraqi government] off a cliff."
In presenting its new strategy in January, the administration described progress on security, political reforms and economic reconstruction as three legs of a stool, all necessary for Iraq to stand on its own. A decrease in violence, it said, would give the government breathing room to move toward political reconciliation. And reconciliation, along with economic progress and creation of jobs, would wean Iraqis from violence.
Iraq's Sunni leaders agreed to the hastily written 2005 constitution, which most saw as favoring the Kurds, only on the condition that it include plans for amendments. A parliamentary committee has been working on the changes for months but is unlikely to finish by next Tuesday's deadline. On Monday, Iraq's top Sunni leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, told CNN that he would pull his bloc out of the unity government if key amendments are not completed. Kurdish leaders have said they will oppose provisions that diminish their autonomy, and they have objected to proposals in the draft oil package.
"I think they will have made some headway by September," said Nicholas Haysom, who heads the political division of the United Nations Mission for Iraq. "But we would also acknowledge the possibility that the political process may end up being even more divisive" by then.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.