Sunday, January 14, 2007

Democrats may push to shutter war prisons

WASHINGTON -- House Democratic leaders yesterday outlined plans to try to force the Bush administration to close the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, taking aim at two sites that have sparked an international furor over the Bush administration's war policy.

Representative John P. Murtha, the chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations subcommittee and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said he wants to close both prisons by cutting their funding, "to restore our credibility worldwide." If he succeeds, it would force the administration to find a new location for high-value terrorism suspects.

"We have the role, as elected officials, to exert our influence through the power of the purse -- that's what it's all about," said Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat whose committee will hold hearings on Iraq next week. "We try not to micromanage the Defense Department, but I tell you, they need micromanagement. They're out of control."

The effort to close the prisons, which Murtha said Pelosi supports, illustrates how congressional Democrats are confronting the president over his war policies. The aggressive push to change the war's course has intensified after the president's address Wednesday night in which he announced plans to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.

Democratic leaders will try to include the measure to close the prisons in a spending bill designed to pay for war operations, Murtha said. He acknowledged that closing Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo would be more symbolic than substantive. Abu Ghraib gained international infamy in 2004 after pictures emerged of US soldiers torturing and sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners there. The Guantanamo facility, which has housed Al Qaeda members and other terror suspects for more than five years, has emerged as a lightning rod for criticism of US policies in combating terrorism.

Numerous human rights groups and a United Nations commission have called for it to be shuttered, citing widespread reports of prisoner mistreatment. Starting last fall, Bush has used the prison as a holding place for suspects who were previously held in secret CIA prisons.

"My action is trying to restore credibility in the Middle East," Murtha said.

Bush has defended the detention center as a "necessary" part of the war on terror.

"I'd like to close Guantanamo, but I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darn dangerous and that we better have a plan to deal with them in our courts," Bush said in June.

A Pelosi spokesman, Brendan Daly, said the speaker isn't going to make a final judgment on whether the prisons should be closed until after Murtha's committee has hearings on the issue.

"She has encouraged him to look into it," Daly said.

Murtha's plan emerged as a new series of volleys over the president's war plans played out on Capitol Hill.

House and Senate Democratic leaders say they still hope to change the president's mind about the troop "surge" by passing a non binding resolution of disapproval in the coming weeks. But a growing number of Democrats say that -- because Bush is almost certain to ignore such a resolution -- more must be done to hasten the end of the war.

The most likely step, many Democrats say, would involve spending restrictions on the war budget.

"The non binding resolution is symbolic, and that's nice to do if you've got the time to do it," said Representative John F. Tierney, a Salem Democrat. But lawmakers have to use their power over the budget to stop the war, he said.

"That's where we're going to find out which Democrats and which Republicans are going to take a stand on this," Tierney said.

Though some Republicans are also skeptical of Bush's plan, they indicated they will resist Murtha's attempts to close prisons and control war policy.

"You can't conduct a war or a battle from the House chamber or a committee room," said Representative C.W. Bill Young of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee.

Still, in an indication of the president's waning support in Congress, House Republican leaders held a "listening session" yesterday morning to hear out GOP members' concerns, and Republican leaders have been invited to join the president at Camp David for further talks this weekend.

Bush yesterday made calls to King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to rally support in the Middle East. And for a second straight day, lawmakers grilled top administration officials about the plan on Capitol Hill.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates insisted that the White House has no plans to attack targets in Iran. He also said he believes that having more US troops in Iraq will succeed because Iraqi leaders say they are committed to reaching political settlements to pacify the nation.

"If they fail to do those things, then I think it's incumbent upon the administration and incumbent upon me to recommend looking at whether this is the right strategy," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The White House got some support from Senator John McCain of Arizona, the committee's top Republican and a 2008 Republican presidential prospect. McCain said the troop increase will give Iraqis "the best possible chances to succeed."

But Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the US mission has changed substantially since Congress gave the president the authority to destroy weapons of mass destruction and depose Saddam Hussein.

"Why not come back to the Congress? Why not come back and permit us to have a vote on this surge?" Kennedy asked.

Gates said he would pass that message on to the president, but "I think he feels that he has the authority that he needs to proceed."

That is driving much of Democrats' interest in forcing the president's hand. Kennedy and other Democrats have proposed keeping the president from sending more troops to Iraq by blocking the money he would need to do it.

Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said he is preparing a bill that would go even further, cutting off funds for nearly all troops after six months and allocating only enough resources to provide for the "safe and orderly withdrawal" of US forces.