WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked Congress Wednesday to approve an additional $42.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing the Bush administration’s 2008 war funding request to nearly $190 billion – the largest single-year total for the wars so far.

The move came as Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff and former top U.S. commander in Iraq, warned lawmakers that the Army is stretched dangerously thin because of current war operations and would probably have trouble responding to a major conflict elsewhere. “The current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply,” Casey said Wednesday.

The administration’s funding request, if approved, would boost war spending this year by nearly 15 percent and would bring the total cost of both conflicts to more than $800 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service. The request comes two weeks after President Bush announced a limited troop drawdown from Iraq starting in December and the continuation of the troop buildup strategy through next summer. In the days since, congressional Democrats have failed to force a shift in war policy on troop rotations or withdrawal timelines, but the debate over war funding offers another opportunity for opponents to push for a change of course.

Senate Democrats Wednesday expressed dismay at the administration’s consistently rising “emergency” requests for war funding, calling it “habit-forming” and open-ended while others said they believe the wars are breaking the military. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, before which Gates testified, called the war “nefarious” and “infernal.”

“We can not create a democracy at the point of a gun,” Byrd said. “Sending more guns does not change that reality. This committee will not rubber stamp every request that is submitted by the president.”

As lawmakers expressed concern over rising war costs and the strain on U.S. forces, Gates said he believes it is critical to continue the war until conditions on the ground permit a larger drawdown.

“It’s very important that we handle this drawdown in a way that allows us to end up in a stronger position in Iraq in terms of a more stable country, one that is an ally in the war on terror and one that is a blockade to Iranian influence in the region,” Gates said. “I don’t know what that timeline looks like.”

Gates said the additional money is needed to pay for the duration of President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq and to purchase thousands of new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to shield U.S. forces from insurgent bombs.

Wednesday’s request for $42.3 billion came on top of $141.7 billion requested in February and in a separate request for $5.3 billion for MRAP vehicles earlier this year. Gates said the new request, to be submitted to Congress by President Bush, will include $6 billion to support the Army and Marine units currently in Iraq; $14 billion for force protection including MRAP vehicles; $9 billion to ensure critical equipment and technology is available for future missions; and $6 billion for training and equipment to improve the Army’s readiness for future deployments. Another $2 billion will go toward U.S. facilities in the region and to train and equip Iraqi Security Forces.

Gates reiterated Bush’s concept of a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, but said it likely would be a smaller force focused on countering al-Qaida in Iraq, training Iraqi forces, and acting as a bulwark against Iran. He said he envisions a long-term force – possibly for many years – of roughly one-quarter the current U.S. force there, or slightly more than 40,000 troops.

“We’re at a point where the pacing of all of this is really what is at issue, and quite frankly my biggest worry is if we handle this aspect of it, if we handle this next phase badly, then all bets are off as far as what our commitments in the region may be,” Gates said.

Casey, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee for the first time as the Army’s top officer, expressed deep concern over the impact on the service of the wars Iraq and Afghanistan. In an unusual move, Casey asked for the hearing so that he could explain the strains the Army faces, according to committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo.

“Overall, our readiness is being consumed as fast as we can build it,” Casey said, explaining that U.S. soldiers lack enough time at home to train for full-scale combat operations and equipment is wearing out “at a far greater pace than expected.”

“I believe we can put this back in balance in three or four years,” Casey said, “but it’s going to take that long.”

In his testimony, Gates also urged Congress to approve State Department requests for additional war funding. Though Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said in the hearing that his department will seek money beyond the $3.3 billion it has already requested, he offered no details.

“The challenges we face in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are fundamentally political, economic and cultural in nature, and are not going to be overcome by military means alone,” Gates said. “It will be very difficult for our troops and their commanders to succeed without the key non-military programs and initiatives included in the request for the State Department.”

In a rare sign Wednesday of bipartisan consensus over war policy, the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed a non-binding resolution for a political settlement in Iraq that would divide the country into three semi-autonomous regions.

The plan, conceived by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., was approved 75-23, with support from 26 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. It would not force President Bush to take any action, but the vote carves out common ground in a debate that has grown increasingly polarized and focused on military strategy.

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