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Defying Veto Threat, House Passes Iraq War Bill

The House on Wednesday narrowly approved a $124 billion war spending bill that would require U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq by Oct. 1, setting the stage for the first veto fight between President Bush and majority Democrats.

Only hours after Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, told lawmakers he needed more time to gauge the effectiveness of a troop buildup there, the House voted 218-208 to pass a measure that sought the removal of most combat forces by next spring. Bush has said unequivocally and repeatedly that he will veto it.

The Senate is expected Thursday to approve identical legislation that provides more than $95 billion for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30, conditioned on the administration’s accepting a timetable for withdrawal and new benchmarks to assess the progress of the Iraqi government.

Democratic leaders plan to send the bill to the White House on Monday — one day before the fourth anniversary of Bush’s May 1, 2003, speech aboard an aircraft carrier when he declared the end of major combat operations before a banner that said “Mission Accomplished.”

Afghan Infant Mortality Declines, In a Post-Taliban Recovery

Infant mortality has dropped by 18 percent in Afghanistan, in one of the first real signs of recovery for the country five years after the fall of the Taliban regime, health officials said Thursday.

“Despite many challenges, there are clear signs of health sector recovery and progress throughout the country,” Dr. Muhammad Amin Fatimi, health minister, told journalists here.

The number of children who die before their first birthdays has dropped to 135 per 1,000 in 2006 from 165 per 1,000 live births in 2001, according to a countrywide survey by Johns Hopkins University, he said.

That represents a drop of 18 percent, and means that 40,000 to 50,000 infants fewer infants are dying now than in the Taliban era, Fatimi said. “Thanks be to God they are celebrating, laughing and smiling,” he said. “These infants are the future builders of our country.”

Research was conducted by visiting 8,000 households around the country — with four of 34 provinces excepted because of poor security — from September to November 2006, said Benjamin Loevinsohn, a health specialist from the World Bank.

Victory Over Insurgents

Ali Mohammed Gedi, Somalia’s transitional prime minister, declared a turning point on Thursday in his battle with insurgents after a month of heavy combat in which more than 1,000 civilians have been killed.

“We have won,” he said at a news conference in Mogadishu, Somalia’s shell-shocked capital.

As he spoke, Ethiopian-led forces aligned with the Somali government pushed deep into insurgent territory, much of which has been reduced to smoldering rubble. More than 100 gunmen came out with their hands up and surrendered to government troops, Gedi said.

“Soon, Mogadishu will be under our control,” he said.

How soon, though, remains an open question. Witnesses said that loud gun battles resumed Thursday night in southern Mogadishu as insurgents, to cover their retreat, fired rocket-propelled grenades even after Gedi’s declaration. Many neighborhoods remained deadly no-go zones, and many residents seemed decidedly more pessimistic than Gedi.