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House passes repeal of 2002 military authorization for Iraq war

Vote passed with support from both parties and President Biden; repeals of other war authorizations are expected

In a strong bipartisan vote on Thursday, the House voted to repeal the military authorization for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 in what supporters hope will be the first of several legislative steps by this Congress to end America’s decadeslong wars in the Middle East.

Lawmakers voted, 268-161, to pass the bill to terminate the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Forty-nine Republicans voted to repeal. The White House has said it supports the legislation, and the Senate is scheduled to begin work on a related repeal measure next week.

Advocates of the repeal measure note it’s been a decade since President Barack Obama ended formal combat operations in Iraq tied to the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country. Continuing to have the military authorization on the books leaves it vulnerable to abuse, as many Democrats argue President Donald Trump did in January 2020 when he used it as a partial basis for legal justification of the drone assassination strike in Iraq on one of Iran’s top generals, Qassem Soleimani.

In fact, the very premise for Congress passing the 2002 AUMF remains deeply flawed, as it was based on a gross exaggeration of the threat represented by the Saddam Hussein regime, argued Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the legislation’s sponsor, in a Thursday House floor speech before the vote.

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“The Bush administration misled the American people by saying there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Iraq posed an imminent threat and by drawing a false connection between the tragic events of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein,” said Lee, who was the only lawmaker to vote against the separate and expansive 2001 military authorization for attacks on al-Qaida and related terrorist groups. She also voted against the 2002 Iraq war authorization. “Those lies and misinformation had deadly consequences,“ Lee added. “The mistakes continue to haunt us today.”  

In his own floor speech, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks said the case for terminating the 2002 authorization was “unassailable.”

“The 2002 AUMF would have no effect on any ongoing military operations in Iraq,” the New York Democrat said. “The United States is not relying on the 2002 AUMF as the sole authority for any military operations. It has been used as an additional legal justification for strikes by presidents of both parties but not as the sole authority for any strikes over the last decade.”

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Republicans opposing the bill argued the Biden administration was wrong to say it no longer needed the 2002 authorization to legally undergird ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq, which are principally focused on countering any resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs panel, argued that even as he generally supported the repeal of the “outdated” 2002 authorization, it needed to happen simultaneously with the passage of an updated counterterrorism-focused authorization that would cover U.S. military actions in Iraq.

For example, Iran-supported Shiite militias in Iraq still carry out sporadic attacks on U.S. troops there, but a U.S. response to that threat is not legally covered by the 2001 AUMF, as those militant groups have no connection to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and al-Qaida, McCaul asserted.

“War should not be on autopilot,” McCaul said. “I also share the desire to repeal the 2002 AUMF as well as the 2001 AUMF, but that must be part of a serious process to provide clear, updated authorities against the terrorists who still plot to kill Americans at home and abroad.”

In a Monday statement of administration policy in support of the 2002 repeal measure, the White House said President Joe Biden was “committed to working with the Congress to ensure that outdated authorizations for the use of military force are replaced with a narrow and specific framework appropriate to ensure that we can continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats.”

“It is a rare thing to see an administration explicitly endorse a narrowing of its own authority, especially when it comes to the powers of the commander-in-chief. This statement by the Biden administration clearly supporting the repeal of the 2002 Iraq AUMF is an acknowledgment that open-ended war authorizations carry a real potential for abuse,” Diana Ohlbaum, senior strategist for the Quaker lobby group, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said in a statement. “This is an essential first step towards changing the environment of never-ending and ever-expanding wars.”

Momentum is building for full congressional repeal of the 2002 authorization.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a markup on June 22 of bipartisan legislation from Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., that would repeal both the 2002 AUMF as well as the 1991 Gulf War military authorization.

“I am grateful to finally see action on repealing these outdated AUMFs — an issue that has long been important to me,” Kaine said in a Wednesday statement. “So much has changed since 1991 and 2002: Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone; the Gulf and Iraq Wars are over; and Iraq is now a close security partner who should not be labeled an enemy state.”

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