US Senate backs repeal of 'zombie' Iraq war authorizations, 20 years after invasion

U.S.-led troops withdraw from Iraq's Taji base
A U.S. soldier is seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in the base north of Baghdad, Iraq August 23, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

WASHINGTON, March 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate easily passed legislation on Wednesday to repeal two decades-old authorizations for past wars in Iraq, as Congress pushes to reassert its role in deciding whether to send troops into combat 20 years after the last invasion.

The Democratic-led Senate voted 66-30 in favor of legislation to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, a bipartisan majority well above the 51 votes needed to pass the measure that would formally end the Gulf and Iraq wars.

To become law, the repeal of the two Iraq AUMFs must still pass the Republican-led House of Representatives, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy signaled support but told a news conference last week the matter should first be reviewed by a House committee, not go straight to a floor vote.

President Joe Biden has said he will sign the measure if it passes both the Senate and House and reaches his desk.

Twenty years after the March 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the vote was a historic, if symbolic, step away from a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans, complicated policy in the Middle East and bitterly divided U.S. politics.

Supporters of repeal also said it recognized that Iraq is no longer an adversary but has become a U.S. security partner.

The resolution also would repeal the Gulf War AUMF approved in 1991 after Saddam's Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Iraq AUMFs have been labeled "zombie" authorizations because they never expire but their original purpose no longer applies.


It was also the latest effort by U.S. lawmakers to reclaim congressional authority over whether troops should be sent into combat, which backers of the repeal said had been improperly ceded to the White House as the Senate and the House passed and then failed to repeal open-ended war authorizations.

"This vote shows that Congress is prepared to call back our constitutional role in deciding how and when a nation goes to war, and also when it should end wars," said Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, before the vote.

"It also protects against future administrations abusing authorizations that outlive their mandate but still remain on the books," Menendez said.

Under the U.S. constitution, Congress, not the president, has the right to declare war.

Lawmakers have been divided over whether to let the AUMFs stand, leaving it to military commanders to decide how best to fight U.S. enemies. As a result, no AUMF repeals have passed since 1971, although some have passed committees or one chamber of Congress.

In 1971, Congress voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had provided authority for the Vietnam War.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told a House hearing that it was up to Congress to decide whether to repeal the Iraq AUMFs, but that the military could still "do what we need to do" based on a separate AUMF passed in after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks authorizing military action against extremists.

McConnell, who is out of Washington recovering from a fall, issued a statement opposing the repeal.

"Our terrorist enemies aren’t sunsetting their war against us. And when we deploy our servicemembers in harm’s way, we need to supply them with all the support and legal authorities that we can," he said, citing recent attacks such as one last week in Syria that killed one American and wounded six others.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle with additional reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman

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Patricia Zengerle has reported from more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. An award-winning Washington-based national security and foreign policy reporter who also has worked as an editor, Patricia has appeared on NPR, C-Span and other programs, spoken at the National Press Club and attended the Hoover Institution Media Roundtable. She is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence.