Bush faces mutiny over extra troops for Iraq

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The Independent US

As George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney inveighed against their Democratic critics, the White House tried to prevent a Republican mutiny on Capitol Hill from engulfing the President's bitterly contested decision to send more than 20,000 extra US troops to Iraq.

The moves came as public opposition to Mr Bush's new policy seemed, if anything, to harden, while Congress geared up for what is shaping up as the fiercest constitutional battle over the war-waging powers of a President since the Vietnam war.

Mr Bush and Mr Cheney challenged Democrats to come up with a better way: "To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible," Mr Bush said, while his Vice-President, predictably, was more trenchant. "They have absolutely nothing to offer in its place," Mr Cheney told the conservative Fox News. "I have yet to hear a coherent policy from the Democratic side." And, he added: "If the United States doesn't have the stomach to finish the task in Iraq, we put at risk what we've done" - confirming the belief of al-Qa'ida that the US could be driven from the Middle East.

The most important arm-twisting, however, this weekend was not on television but at Camp David. Mr Bush invited Republican congressional leaders to the presidential retreat in a bid to rally support, and dissuade members of his own party from breaking ranks with a "lame duck" leader, whose approval ratings are at 35 per cent or less.

Though the White House insists that it alone charts the conduct of the war, the administration is deeply worried how non-binding resolutions opposing the troop build-up, likely to be voted upon in both Senate and House of Representatives in the next few weeks, could erode its authority and credibility.

Majority Democrats are already working on texts designed to attract maximum Republican support. The Senate vote will be especially telling, since Democrats need to find 10 votes among their opponents to gather the 60 needed to defeat the filibuster promised by the minority leader Mitch McConnell, a loyal backer of the President. If they succeed, it will be seen as further proof that Mr Bush has lost control of the Capitol Hill wing of his party, as Republican congressmen and senators facing re-election in 2008 run for cover from a war that sent the party to defeat in November's mid-term vote. "Everybody is scared spitless," John Thune, the South Dakota Republican, told The New York Times.

In an interview with the CBS programme 60 Minutes last night, Mr Bush again admitted a measure of responsibility for the shambles in Iraq, saying that "no question, [my] decisions have made things unstable in Iraq." And, he added, "history ... is going to see a lot of ways in which we could have done things better - no question about it."

Nonetheless, the President stuck to his guns about the decision to invade in 2003, and once more said violence in Iraq had to be brought under control - "or it could lead to attacks here in America." The build-up could start as early as this week, presenting Congress with a fait accompli, and daring Democrats to use the "Armageddon" option of a vote to end war funding. Though a total cut-off seems out of the question, Senator Edward Kennedy says he will seek a ban on funding for the extra troops.

"Even 50,000 troops wouldn't turn it around," Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska senator and leading Republican dissent in Congress, said yesterday, urging the White House to "get out of the bog of tactical thinking". To send more troops "into that grinder - a tribal, sectarian civil war - is not going to fix the problem".

The row is having an impact on the 2008 election. John McCain, the Republican front-runner and supporter of the "surge", said the war could wreck his ambitions. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has to back away from her 2002 vote for war without opening herself to the accusations of "flip-flopping".

* The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, arrived in London yesterday for talks about future policy in Afghanistan and Iraq on his first visit to Britain since taking office last month. Mr Gates will hold talks with Tony Blair before dining with the Defence Secretary, Des Browne.