Bush claims victory as Senate approves terror suspects bill

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The Republican-controlled Senate is set to follow the House of Representatives in approving new rules for the detention and trial of foreign terrorist suspects, in what would be a significant pre-election victory for President George Bush.

As the day progressed, Senators beat back primarily Democratic amendments before a final vote. The most serious remaining obstacle was a proposed amendment by a Republican - Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee - that would give suspects the right to challenge their detention in federal court and thus, says Mr Specter, observe the 800-year-old principle of habeas corpus.

But after last week's deal between rebel senior Republican senators and the White House, this amendment too appeared destined for defeat. Final passage of the Bill would set the stage for signature by Mr Bush today or tomorrow. In effect, the ceremony will sound the starting bell for the final campaign for the mid-term elections in November, in which national security will be the overriding issue.

Both sides are claiming victory from the compromise. But human rights groups say the final version allows the President too much discretion in deciding what interrogation methods are legitimate, and in providing immunity for CIA interrogators from prosecution for war crimes.

The Bill, passed by a 253-168 vote in the House, sets up military tribunals to try suspects. It thus complies with June's Supreme Court ruling that any such system must be approved by Congress, and cannot merely be imposed by the Pentagon, as were the tribunals set up at Guantanamo Bay. But defendants' rights will still fall well short of those guaranteed by civilian and most military courts.

It also defines war crimes including torture, rape and biological experiments on detainees. But Mr Bush will have wide authority to decide which other interrogation techniques are legal.

The legislation also fulfils a vital political purpose. With party ranks reunited, the White House is again trying to manoeuvre Democrats in a corner, in which it can depict the latter's opposition to anti-terror legislation as proof of weakness on national security. Republicans are counting on the issue to retain control of Congress in November.

After the House vote, Dennis Hastert, the Speaker, accused the 168 Congressmen who opposed it (all but eight of whem Democrats) of "voting in favour of more rights for terrorists". If Democrats had their way, he said, they would "coddle" the very people who were trying to harm Americans around the world.

Democrats used the initial argument of Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential candidate in 2008, who led the earlier rebellion. The former Vietnam prisoner of war warned that the Bill could endanger US troops by encouraging an enemy to limit their rights if captured.

Mr Hastert's "false and inflammatory rhetoric" was just another attempt "to mislead the American people and provoke fear", said a spokeswoman for Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the House. Democrats complain the Bill gives the Mr Bush too much latitude in deciding interrogation standards.

* Al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq urged his followers to kidnap Westerners to use as a bargaining chip for the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Muslim cleric jailed in the US in 1995. In a tape posted on the internet, a speaker said to be Abu Hamza al-Muhajir claimed 4,000 foreign fighters had been killed in the Iraq insurgency. He urged militants to step up their jihad during Ramadan, which has just begun. "I call on every holy fighter in Iraq to strive during this holy month... to capture some dogs of the Christians so we can liberate our imprisoned sheikh," he said.