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By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress took a step towards President Barack Obama's goal of closing Guantanamo Bay prison on Tuesday when it cleared a measure allowing foreign terrorism suspects held there to face prosecution in the United States.
The Senate's 79 to 19 vote removed one of the many roadblocks the government faces as it tries to empty the internationally condemned prison by January.
The measure, included in a $42.8 billion (26.1 billion pound) bill to fund the Homeland Security Department, passed the House of Representatives last week and now heads to the White House for Obama to sign into law.
Obama ordered the detention camp closed on his second day in office but administration officials have run into numerous legal, political and diplomatic hurdles.
Many Republicans in Congress have objected to plans to house terrorism suspects in U.S. prisons, worrying that they could invite additional terrorist attacks.
Some also argued that the detainees do not deserve American legal protections and say they should be tried in military tribunals at Guantanamo, a U.S. Navy base on Cuba.
The compromise passed by both chambers of Congress would allow the government to bring Guantanamo inmates to U.S. soil only if they are going to face trial in American courts.
The administration would have to present a risk assessment and give 45 days' notice.
Those cleared of wrongdoing without trial could not be resettled within the United States.
Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, said transferring prisoners to U.S. soil would make the country less safe.
"By prosecuting terrorists in open courts, the president will compromise classified intelligence that Americans have paid dearly to obtain for our safety," said Lippold, now with the advocacy group Military Families United.
He was commander of the Cole during a 2002 suicide attack in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
The Guantanamo prison has been condemned worldwide for harsh treatment of its prisoners, and administration officials have argued that it serves as a recruiting symbol for groups like al Qaeda.
Roughly 220 prisoners remain in the facility, which was opened after the September 11 attacks.
Some 17 Chinese Muslims currently at Guantanamo have pressed for resettlement within the United States, over the objections of the Obama administration, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear their case.
A United Nations official, Manfred Nowak, said Tuesday that European countries should help out by accepting detainees for resettlement.
Authorities have already transferred one prisoner, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, to New York for trial on charges of conspiring in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
The bill would also allow the Pentagon to block the release of photographs showing the abuse of terrorism suspects, which have figured prominently in several scandals.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Reuters