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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 21:05 GMT 22:05 UK
US Democrats face war funding dilemma
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

US marines in Falluja, Iraq
The compromise bill releases nearly $100bn in funding for US troops
After months of bitter wrangling, the US Congress has passed an Iraq war funding bill - and it does not include the timetable for troop withdrawal sought by the Democrats.

While senior Democrats say the bill is just the first step in an ongoing battle, anti-war campaigners have accused them of caving in to pressure from the White House.

They say the compromise - which has been welcomed by President George W Bush - lets down the voters who gave the Democrats control of Congress last November.

It comes as the latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows a record 76% of Americans think the war in Iraq is going badly and that six out of 10 believe going to war was a mistake.

And in a clue to the bill's political importance, three out of the four senators hoping to win the Democrats' presidential nomination in 2008 voted against it.

So have the Democrats broken their promises to voters? And what is the fallout likely to be as the party's presidential contenders jostle for position in the run-up to 2008?

Limited options

Senior Democrats admit they too are disappointed at the "small step" taken in passing the war funding bill.

House Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi says the bill is a small step in an ongoing battle

But in their defence they point out that it does include benchmarks for progress - although these can be over-ruled by Mr Bush - and so represents a "change of direction".

The big battle is still to come in September when a further funding bill will be needed, House Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said.

Analysts agree the Democrats had little option but to reach a compromise on the current bill, which releases almost $100bn in war funding.

No party can risk being accused of abandoning troops in the field - and the Democrats did not have the numbers in Congress to over-turn the threatened presidential veto on any bill setting withdrawal dates.

Michael Hammond, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says it is also unfair to say the Democrats have failed to deliver on what they promised to voters.

"They came into office saying they would not cut off funding for the war, and so this is a re-versioning of what their initial position had been at the start of this calendar year," he says.

Presidential ambitions

Mr Hammond agrees September would seem the logical time for the Democrats to make a fresh push on Iraq.

An Iraqi woman passes a US marines' vehicle in Falluja, Iraq
Polls show the Iraq war is increasingly unpopular in the US

By that time, the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will have had time fully to implement the president's "surge" strategy of pouring more troops into Iraq, and it will have become clear whether it is working.

He suggests the Democrats have up till now given too much sway to the loud anti-war voices on the party's left and not enough to the "silent middle" in the party, who want to see a stable resolution to the conflict.

"The Democratic party is certainly frustrated with this war and I don't think the party wants to see it go on much longer - but it's not as if everyone is rushing to the doors thinking it's already over," he says.

As for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd, who were among 14 senators to vote against the bill, with 80 for, their presidential ambitions put them in a different political position to their fellows, Mr Hammond says.

"In the short term they want to send a message of criticism of the president," he says.

Anti-war group has already praised what it calls the trio's "bold stand" - and the fourth Democratic senator making a White House bid, Joe Biden, has acknowledged that his support for the bill is "not a smart move" in that regard.

Political revenge?

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says there is a real danger that voters will feel let down by the Democrats over Iraq.

US President George W Bush - 24/05/2007
President Bush says leaving Iraq too early would risk US security

But, he points out: "Not every American who has expressed concern about the war is ready to exact a political revenge - and the next election isn't for another 17 months."

As for the presidential contenders, their stance on the bill has been dictated by the realities of the fight to win the party's nomination early next year.

"Right now in the Democratic party you are not going to be nominated as a supporter of the war," Mr Preble says.

"And in the Republican party, even though a majority of Republicans are dissatisfied with at least the conduct of the war, right now you cannot get nominated in the Republican party unless you are pro-war.

"You've got to get nominated before you get elected."

The future challenge for the Republican frontrunners - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney - will be to convince the public that the war is necessary for US national security, as the president has argued.

In the meantime, Mr Bush has got what he wanted from his negotiations with Congress, Mr Preble says.

"The question the president and others who did not want a timetable want to be asking themselves is, how likely it is that the military strategy will succeed?"

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