WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush and congressional Democrats headed toward a collision over Iraq on Tuesday as each held firm on a funding bill that is at the centre of feuding over the future of the war.
The political fight between Republicans and Democrats heated up as violence in Iraq escalated. U.S. military officials said four Iraqi soldiers were killed and 16 American soldiers wounded in Baghdad in the fiercest fighting since a security crackdown began in February.
Bush invited congressional leaders of both parties to the White House next week to discuss about $100 billion (50.7 billion pounds) in disputed funding for the Iraq war. But he said he would not negotiate on Democratic demands for a pullout date.
“We can discuss the way forward on a bill that is a clean bill; a bill that funds our troops without artificial timetables for withdrawal, and without handcuffing our generals on the ground,” Bush said, speaking to the American Legion veterans group outside Washington.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: “The president is inviting us down to the White House with preconditions. That’s not the way things should operate.”
He accused Bush of having “put our troops in the middle of a civil war.”
Bush and fellow Republicans complained that delays in approving the money could hurt the U.S. war effort, prompting Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, to promise Congress would finish a bill this month.
“The president is again misleading the American people by falsely claiming that Congress is delaying funds,” Byrd said, adding that $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been approved for this year, with an additional $100 billion on the way. He also noted the Democratic-controlled Congress is moving quicker on the additional funds than the Republican-controlled Congress did last year.
Last month, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills with more new money for the war than Bush requested. But Democrats attached timetables for ending the U.S. combat role in Iraq: a September 1, 2008, deadline in the House bill and a goal of March 31, 2008 in the Senate legislation.
Reid told reporters he and fellow Democrats were pushing ahead with a House-Senate compromise. “We’re going to give the president a bill. And it is up to him whether he wants to fund the troops,” he said.
Bush has issued regular veto threats of these bills and says Democratic leaders in Congress will be to blame for delaying funding for the troops by passing legislation he will not sign into law.
Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Samir Shakir Sumaida’ie, echoed Bush.
“To signal the intention to withdraw by a certain date would be seen as the beginning of the end,” Sumaida’ie wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page.
Bush said he would submit a formal request to tap $1.6 billion in funds from other Pentagon accounts to pay for the war operations until the funding dispute is worked out with Congress.
“We are at war. It is irresponsible for the Democratic leadership in Congress to delay for months on end while our troops in combat are waiting,” Bush said.
But Reid countered with an argument Democrats used last year in elections that won them control of Congress.
“We have to change course (in Iraq) and turn our attention back to the war on al Qaeda and their allies,” he said. “That’s what Congress is demanding, and the president should be leading us in that direction, not threatening vetoes.”
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Susan Cornwell