WASHINGTON President George W. Bush on Tuesday vetoed legislation from the Democratic-controlled Congress that would have set dates for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, saying such a timetable would be "setting a deadline for failure."
"Members of the House and Senate passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders," Bush said on the fourth anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" speech in which he prematurely declared an end to major hostilities in Iraq.
Bush's veto came as Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said highly reliable information indicated Abu Ayyub al-Masri, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed north of Baghdad. An al Qaeda-linked group, however, denied the report and U.S. officials said it could not be confirmed.
Democrats in Congress appear not to have enough votes to override Bush's veto, which was only the second of his term.
The withdrawal dates were part of a $124 billion funding package for the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan and Bush said congressional leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties had been invited to the White House Wednesday to reconcile differences.
Bush had repeatedly promised to veto legislation that would set dates for troops withdrawals and in a televised address on Tuesday he called such a timetable "rigid and artificial." He said it also would demoralize the Iraqi people and encourage killers across the Middle East.
"Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a deadline for failure and that would be irresponsible," Bush said.
"... It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq."
Under the legislation, which won the support of only four Republicans in Congress, American troop withdrawals would have begun as early as July 1 and no later than October 1, with the nonbinding goal of removing all combat troops by March 31.
Both sides draped the bill in symbolism. Democratic congressional leaders waited to present the legislation to Bush on the "Mission Accomplished" anniversary while the president vetoed it with a pen given to him by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq.
The veto came as violence has been escalating in Iraq and after an April in which more than 100 troops died in Iraq.
Chester Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said the speculated death of al-Masri would be "positive," even though it would not put an end to al Qaeda violence in Iraq, where it is blamed for trying to push the country into full-scale sectarian civil war.
Bolani said details about Masri's death would be released soon but when asked later to confirm the death said: "If he has not been killed today, he will be killed tomorrow."
There has been growing friction between Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups over al Qaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians and its imposition of an austere brand of Islam in the areas where it holds sway.
If Masri was killed by insurgents, that would signal a deepening split at a time when the Shi'ite-led government is trying to woo some insurgent groups into the political process.
On the political front, Iraq's main Sunni bloc is considering quitting the Shi'ite-led government because it believes the concerns of Sunnis are not being addressed, members of the bloc including the vice president said.
Some members of the Sunni Accordance Front have been urging the bloc for several months to pull out of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet, partly over accusations that reconciliation with minority Sunni Arabs has moved too slowly.
A pullout would not be enough to topple Maliki, as he would still have a majority in parliament through his ruling Shi'ite Alliance and a coalition of Kurdish parties. The Accordance Front has 44 seats in the 275-member parliament.
Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist, insists the government is making progress toward reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.
(Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla, Waleed Ibrahim and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Inal Ersan in Dubai and Sue Pleming and Richard Cowan in Washington)