The incendiary House debate over whether the time has come to establish an Iraq exit strategy ended Friday morning with a 256-153 vote to maintain an open-ended occupation of the country where 2,500 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in fighting since 2003.

The nonbinding vote came after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who achieved her leadership position after voting in 2002 against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, delivered one of her most ardent anti-war statements yet heard from a leader of the opposition party.

“Stay the course? I don’t think so Mr. President. It’s time to face the facts,” Pelosi told the House.

“This war is a failed policy of the Bush administration… We need a new direction in Iraq,” said Pelosi, who added: “The war in Iraq has been a mistake. I say, a grotesque mistake.”

The floor fight over the resolution, which was initiated by Republicans who wanted to force Democrats to either back Bush or appear to not support troops serving in Iraq, stirred intense debate. In the end, however, most Democrats and a handful of Republicans chose to counter the cynical scheming of Karl Rove’s White House political machine by voting “no” to legislation that even a Republican loyalist, Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons, admitted “fails to fully address a key question that most Americans are asking: ‘When are the troops coming home?'”

Of the 256 votes for the resolution, 214 came from Republicans and 42 from Democrats.

Of the 153 votes against it, 149 came from Democrats, three from Republicans and one from Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.Pelosi was joined in voting “no” by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, in a rare show of leadership unity on a war-related issue.

The three Republicans who voted “no” were Texan Ron Paul, Tennessean John Duncan and Iowan Jim Leach, all longtime foes of the war. Several Republicans who have expressed opposition to the war, including North Carolina Representative Walter Jones Jr., voted “present” or did not vote at all.

The intense debate allowed administration supporters to mouth election-year talking points from a memo provided by the White House political shop, with Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood saying of Democratic critics of administration policies: “Many, not all, on the other side of the aisle lack the will to win.” House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, declared, “When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run.”

That line was countered by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the decorated Vietnam veteran who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the war. Referring to House Republicans, many of them non-veterans, who chirped during the debate about how determined they were to fight on, the Pennsylvania Democrat said “it’s easy to stay in an air-conditioned office and say I’m going to stay the course.”

“That’s why I get so upset when they stand here sanctimoniously and say we’re fighting this thing,” thundered Murtha. “It’s the troops that are doing the fighting.”

The vote took place one day after the 2,500th American died in Iraq.White House spokesman Tony Snow, like many members of the House majority, dismissed the death toll, telling the press corps: “It’s a number, and every time there’s one of these 500 benchmarks people want something.”

What people got Friday morning was a House vote for perpetual war – and a lot more of those “500 benchmarks.”