WASHINGTON - President Bush will not sign any war-spending bill that penalizes Iraq's government for failing to make progress, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday in a fresh warning to Congress about challenging Bush.
The president is expected to veto a bill this week that would order U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq by Oct. 1. Lacking the votes to override a veto, the Democratic-led Congress is considering a revised plan to pay for the war while requiring Iraq to meet benchmarks for progress.
Congress has not decided whether to punish Iraq for falling short. Rice sent lawmakers a clear message, saying Bush would not agree to a plan that penalized Baghdad for insufficient progress.
"To begin now to tie our own hands - and to say 'we must do this if they don't do that' - doesn't allow us the flexibility and creativity that we need to move this forward," Rice said.
Democratic lawmakers, eager to wind the war down, showed little appetite for establishing goals without consequences. Iraq has struggled to keep its own promises for distributing oil wealth, refining its constitution, and expanding democratic participation.
"The benchmarks - the Iraqis agreed to it, the president agreed it," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.), who heads a House subcommittee that controls defense spending. "We're saying to them, 'Well, let's put some teeth into the benchmarks.' " Murtha appeared on CBS's Face the Nation.
Even if they agree to scrap a troop-withdrawal timetable, Democratic lawmakers say they want to link U.S. support to Iraq's performance in some way. But they must find an approach to pass a bill that Bush would be willing to sign.
Bush is expected to veto the war bill by tomorrow, then meet Wednesday with congressional leaders on the next steps. The current legislation would provide $124.2 billion, more than $90 billion of which would go for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, Rice said Iraqi leaders know U.S. patience is worn. Still, she said deadlines for progress could undermine the work of Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
"The United States is paying in blood and treasures," Rice acknowledged. "The Iraqi leadership is being told, and I think they understand, that the kind of Iraq that there is going to be is up to them. We can't give them a united Iraq."
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said Iraqi leaders had gotten the message.
"We have no illusion that the U.S. commitment is . . . open-ended," he said on CNN's Late Edition. "We have said it from the beginning. This is our country."