In the first significant Congressional protest against the war, the House of Representatives went on record last night opposing George Bush's decision to send more US troops to Iraq. The vote, though symbolic, almost certainly sets the stage for a constitutional showdown between the White House and Congress over the President's power to wage war not just in Iraq, but potentially against Iran as well.
There had never been any doubt the non-binding resolution would pass comfortably, given that the Democrats, who have a comfortable 30-vote majority in the House, were expected to vote almost unanimously in favour. In the event, they were joined by 17 Republicans who repudiated their President over a force escalation which, like the war itself, is now opposed by some two-thirds of the US population.
Mr Bush has already made clear he will press ahead with his "surge" , arguing that Congress has contradicted itself by approving a new US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus while rejecting the policy he is to carry out. But the revolt by some members of his own party underscores the weakness of the White House position.
Whatever its practical results, the House move has already shamed the Senate into a new attempt to bring to the floor an identical resolution opposing the force build-up but supporting the troops, in an exceptional Saturday session today.
A fortnight ago, a first bid by the upper chamber to debate the new Iraq policy died amid procedural wrangling. Each party blamed the other, but polls now show that Americans overwhelmingly blame the Republican minority for using complex Senate rules to block a discussion of the biggest issue of the day.
Last night, half a dozen Republican senators were indicating they would back the resolution. Even so, it seemed unlikely that Democrats would secure the enough defections.
In the House, however, Democrat leaders have said they intend to impose further, and binding, conditions on the management of the war that the White House is certain to resist.
The conditions include mandatory minimum leave for units deployed to Iraq, specific minimum training in counter-insurgency, and guarantees that soldiers will have the proper equipment before they are sent to Iraq.
War opponents openly admit that those steps are intended to tie the hands of the administration, without resorting to the politically risky option of cutting off war funding. The Bush administration insists such micro-management is not part of the brief of Congress. The dispute could lead to the biggest fight here over war powers since Vietnam.
Meanwhile Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democrat Presidential candidate in 2008, has said he will put forward a resolution repealing the 2002 vote that gave the go-ahead for war.
The manoeuvring is focussed not just on Iraq, but also on Iran, amid speculation the White House will use either Tehran's alleged supply of weapons to Shia militias in Iraq, or its nuclear programme, as justification for an attack.
In recent days, both Mr Bush and Robert Gates, the new Defence Secretary, have denied they are planning military action. But Democrats and some Republicans say events now from the US naval build-up in the Gulf to pressure on Iran at the UN bear an uncanny similarity to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq four years ago. White House lawyers maintain that the 2002 resolution gives Mr Bush authority to go after Iran, if Tehran is shown to be behind the deaths of US servicemen in Iraq.And the US yesterday stepped up pressure, naming three Iranian companies as proliferators of weapons of mass destructionReuse content