(Adds details of Gates testimony, Byrd quotes, protests)
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Sept 26 The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost at least $190 billion in 2008, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, making it the most expensive year in the conflicts since they were launched by President George W. Bush.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked Congress to approve the funding after Bush this month beat back demands from Democrats for a quick end to the Iraq war and said the U.S. presence there would go on after he leaves office in 2009.
Gates said he hoped longer-term for a much smaller U.S. force than the 165,000 troops currently in Iraq. He added that "I don't see" any of the requested money being used for preparing a military attack on Iran, which Pentagon officials say is supplying weapons used against U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd told Gates not to presume the Pentagon would get the money.
"We cannot create a democracy at the point of a gun" in Iraq, Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, warned Gates in a hearing often interrupted by the shouts of anti-war protesters. "Sending more guns does not change that reality."
The Pentagon's request was made as senators reached a rare -- but symbolic -- consensus on a proposal on how to proceed in Iraq, passing a non-binding resolution calling for the creation of separate Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish "federal regions" with a weak central government in Baghdad.
The bipartisan 75-23 vote on the proposal by Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden may be Senate's best chance of influencing U.S. strategy in Iraq after frustrated Democrats failed repeatedly to get the votes for a troop pullout.
The Senate vote was "the first time in four-and-a-half years in the war in Iraq where you had an overwhelmingly bipartisan consensus as to a recommendation to the president on how to proceed," Biden, a presidential hopeful, said.
"What we said today was, 'There is a way Mr. President, in our view, to end this war in a way that we are able ultimately to bring our troops home but leave a stable Iraq behind.'"
The proposal urged Bush to bring in the international community to support such a political settlement and convene a conference with Iraqis to help them reach it.
Sen. John Warner of Virginia, an influential Republican voice on military affairs who supported the plan, said he hoped the Bush administration would examine it. He said it was unlikely Democrats in the near term would get enough votes in the Senate to force Bush's hand on the conduct of the war itself.
Since Sept. 2001, Congress has appropriated $602 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The Bush administration had already asked Congress to approve $147 billion for the wars in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Gates said the Pentagon sought $42 billion more, bringing the total request for fiscal 2008 to $189 billion.
The Pentagon plans to reduce its force in Iraq to about 130,000 by July 2008 -- the level before the "surge" this year, and Gates has said more could be pulled out later in 2008.
Over the longer term, he said on Wednesday, the U.S. combat force in Iraq could equal roughly one-quarter its current strength, but: "I don't know what that timeline looks like."
Gates said it was important to leave behind a stable Iraq as a "blockade" against Iranian influence in the region.
The full Senate, reflecting concerns about Iran's actions in Iraq, approved another non-binding motion Wednesday calling on the State Department to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as "a foreign terrorist organization."
The room erupted halfway through the hearing when anti-war protesters shouted at Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he explained his view on gays in the military and his personal opposition to homosexuality.
"Bigot!" they screamed. "Thou shalt not kill!" Byrd abruptly adjourned the session and police ordered the protesters out. One was detained.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Richard Cowan and Kristin Roberts)