Republicans block Senate Iraq withdrawal plan

Republicans in the US Senate on Wednesday blocked a Democratic measure which would have required President George W. Bush to pull most combat troops out of Iraq by the end of April 2008.After a marathon all-night debate, the Republican vote held firm, despite several party senators expressing unease over the war plan after the president rejected changes in Iraq strategy until September at the earliest.

The Senate voted by 52 to 47 to move to a final vote on the measure, well short of the 60-vote supermajority needed for the bill to proceed.

It was the latest defeat for majority Democrats who have battled for months to force Bush to accept hard troop withdrawal timetables.

Bush under fire over the unpopular war, has warned that leaving Iraq would spark chaos, and handover the country for use as a terror haven by Al Qaeda.

With fold-down beds at the ready in a room near the Senate, and hot coffee on tap, relays of senators had kept the debate going in a near-deserted chamber through the small hours after it started on Tuesday afternoon.

Veteran Republican Senator John McCain lambasted the debate as an “exhibition” staged for a “briefly amused press corps” which substituted “theatrics for statesmanship”.

But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticised Republicans for using Senate procedure to a require  60-vote supermajority, and accused them of protecting the president and not US troops. People “understand, very clearly, that we have a situation where we have a president who will be in office only another 17 months and they want the war to end before he leaves office”, Reid said. The vote on an amendment to a defence policy bill, would have required a troop withdrawal to start within 120 days of enactment, and for most combat soldiers to be out of Iraq by April 30, 2008.

Remaining US troops in Iraq would have a limited role: battling terrorists, protecting US personnel and installations and training Iraqi troops.

Through the early hours of the morning, bleary-eyed senators kept up relays on the Senate floor.

Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took her turn at 4:02am, while McCain popped up several times through the night.

“Many of us have been searching for the best approach to take with respect to our involvement in Iraq for a number of years,” said Clinton, who voted to authorise the war in 2002 but has now turned against it.

“But we don’t do it with any sense that we know everything that will happen no matter what decisions are taken. But what we do have is a history of miscalculations and mistakes that we are now attempting to deal with.” Just before 6:00am, defeated 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry was holding forth, and in possibly one of the least-noticed debuts ever, Republican Senator John Barrasso clocked in for his maiden Senate speech at 5:06am.

Bush has warned he will make no decisions on any change in strategy in Iraq until US commander General David Petraeus returns to Washington in September to report on the current plan to surge an extra 30,000 troops into the country.

Democrats say only the threat of withdrawal will force Iraq’s government to embrace political reconciliation, after it was shown to have made meager progress by a new US report last week.

“It is that open-ended commitment that must end if we are going to prod the Iraqi people to finally step up, stare into the abyss and answer the question — do they want a civil war or do they want a nation?” said Democratic Senator Carl Levin on Tuesday.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who has chastised the administration over its war strategy, rejected White House claims the surge strategy was working.

“By any measure, the situation in Iraq is getting worse with each week that passes,” Hagel said.

Bush’s backers said withdrawal would leave Iraq as a haven for Al Qaeda and embolden US foe Iran.

The US military’s losses in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion are now at 3,621, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians are also dead.

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