Congress Closes Ranks To Support GIs in Gulf

House and Senate voice outrage at Saddam's methods as US demonstrations for and against the war mount

SEN. Dave Durenberger put into words what virtually all of Congress is now thinking: Iraq's brutal treatment of American and other allied prisoners of the Gulf war provokes ``our total outrage at Saddam Hussein,'' the Minnesota Republican said late last week on the floor of the Senate. All Americans, including members of Congress, should also express ``our love and support'' for the prisoners and their families, he added.

Congress's divisive, early January debate over United States tactics in the Gulf is history.

Members have closed ranks to express the twin views of outrage at the behavior of Iraq's leader and support for the more than 400,000 Americans serving in the Gulf.

On the floor of both Senate and House members have been protesting Iraqi actions and supporting America's troops, as well as President Bush.

In a series of unanimously approved bills and nonbinding resolutions they have been putting their votes behind their words.

Public protests grow

The congressional position comes against a backdrop of growing public demonstrations in Washington and throughout the US, both against and in favor of the war.

Although latest polls indicate strong American support for the war as now fought by air, the antiwar protests have been large.

In Washington more than 40,000 people - teenagers, people in their 20s, parents with small children, adults old enough to have military-aged children - marched and demonstrated peacefully against the war on Saturday. Across America demonstrations were held in other communities, some large, others small.

In many communities supporters of President Bush's actions in the war held smaller rallies backing current US action in the Gulf.

On Capitol Hill members of Congress are now united in opposition to Saddam even though before the fighting began they had sharply disagreed on whether force or continued sanctions should be used against Iraq.

Saddam's treatment of American POWs is ``in violation of all rules of civilized behavior,'' says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who spent 5-1/2 years enduring uncivilized behavior as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

Nearly two weeks earlier he had voted against relying on sanctions and in favor of the use of military force if necessary to drive Iraq from Kuwait.

``The Iraqi propaganda effort has only served to strengthen the resolve'' of the American people, says Sen. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado. ``The more vicious Saddam becomes, the more resolved we become.''

Originally he had supported continued sanctions and had opposed resorting to force.

Unanimous agreement

When the talking was over, members of both houses of Congress voted unanimously to condemn the way Iraq has been treating US prisoners of war and to laud Israel for not having retaliated for Iraq's SCUD missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Several days earlier Congress overwhelmingly, but not unanimously, had voted support both for President Bush and for American troops.

Beyond these resolutions Congress voted unanimously for two bills that provide tangible expressions of support for the American military. At the weekend both awaited only President Bush's signature to become law.

One measure applies directly to US troops in the Gulf: It would allow them extensions on filing their income tax.

The second bill applies indirectly to current American military forces. It would provide a 5.4 percent cost-of-living increase for the benefits that the federal government now pays to disabled veterans.

This measure ``serves as a signal'' to today's military men and women in the Middle East, or elsewhere, that America will meets it obligations to its veterans, said Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine.

Last year Congress voted a cost-of-living boost in payments to every group of Americans except one who receive federal funds from entitlement programs.

Rectifying an omission

Included were mothers and children on welfare, the elderly on Social Security retirement, and the poor on medical assistance. The one group omitted: the more than two million disabled veterans. The cause: a dispute over the effect on Vietnam veterans of the defoliant Agent Orange.

Rectifying that omission was ``one of my highest priorities'' this year, Senator Mitchell said. With the stimulus of a new war Congress swiftly and one-sidedly concurred.

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