Lawmakers Take Shots at Pentagon

Rumsfeld and top brass argue against pulling troops out of Iraq. They hear concerns from members of both parties about the war effort.

By Mark Mazzetti

Los Angeles Times

June 24, 2005

WASHINGTON — The men directing the war in Iraq told testy and nervous congressional panels Thursday that the sophisticated insurgency had not declined in strength but asserted that U.S. troops were making steady progress and victory was certain.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top generals warned that bowing to pressure for a troop pullout would plunge Iraq into chaos.

"If the coalition were to leave before the Iraqi security forces are able to assume responsibility, we would one day again have to confront another Iraqi regime, perhaps even more dangerous than the last," Rumsfeld told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

During eight hours of testimony, lawmakers from the North and South, from Democratic and Republican constituencies, expressed worries about declining public confidence in a war in which more than 1,700 U.S. troops have died, a toll that increases almost daily.

"I fear that American public opinion is tipping away from this effort," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a staunch supporter of military involvement in Iraq. Surveys this month have shown that only about four in 10 Americans still support the effort.

As Pentagon officials spoke to House and Senate committees, Iraqi insurgents continued a devastating campaign of attacks on Baghdad's streets, setting off a string of car bombings in the capital that killed at least 33 people and wounded 95 Wednesday and Thursday.

The appearance by Rumsfeld and three top generals, who at times made their cases with color charts on giant poster boards, marked the opening of a six-day push by the Bush administration to shore up confidence in its strategy in Iraq. President Bush plays host to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari today and plans a major address Tuesday. Other administration officials are also expected to weigh in on the issue in coming days.

Salvaging public support on Iraq has grown in importance for the administration as it encounters mounting opposition on other fronts, including Bush's chief domestic priority of overhauling Social Security and the nomination of John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations.

Inside the opulent Senate Caucus Room on Thursday, longtime opponents of involvement in Iraq fired shots at Rumsfeld and criticized the Pentagon's post-invasion planning.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) told Rumsfeld to "get off your high horse" and stop answering questions "with a sneer."

"The problem is, we didn't ask enough questions at the beginning of this war that we got into, Mr. Bush's war," Byrd said. "The press didn't ask enough questions. The Senate didn't ask enough questions…. That was wrong."

Yet amid the often contentious exchanges between lawmakers and the assembled Pentagon leadership were significant absences.

There were no demands for the Pentagon to increase the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, unlike previous visits by Rumsfeld and senior generals to Capitol Hill. Nor did lawmakers speak openly about an immediate troop withdrawal.

Instead there was widespread, if grudging, agreement that the only way ahead was the path already charted by the administration: training Iraqi security forces, pressing the fight against insurgents and leaning on Iraqi officials to speed up the building of democratic institutions.

"We have bought into a model that is extremely difficult, but the only answer, because you can't kill enough of these people," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), referring to the insurgents. Graham also expressed concern about declining public support in his home state.

Democrats reserved some of their toughest rhetoric for Iraqi politicians, saying their lag in forming a government had squandered momentum after the Jan. 30 election and allowed insurgents to regroup.

One top Democrat suggested that Washington give the Iraqi government an ultimatum: If Iraqis miss upcoming deadlines for ratifying a constitution and holding national elections, the United States will consider setting a timetable for pulling out its troops.

"The United States needs to tell the Iraqis and the world that if that deadline is not met, we will review our position with all options open, including but not limited to, setting a timetable for withdrawal," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

On the eve of his meeting with Bush, Jafari said Thursday night that he hoped the Iraqi government would meet an Aug. 15 deadline for writing a new constitution. However, in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Jafari also said that setting a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal would aid insurgents.

The three military commanders — Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command; and Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq — described an Iraqi insurgency that had not weakened despite two years of intense counterinsurgency operations.

Abizaid said more foreign fighters were streaming through Iraq's porous borders than six months ago but that the overall strength of the insurgency had not changed in that time.

It was a more sober assessment than Abizaid gave Congress in March, when he said the insurgency was fizzling, citing as evidence the insurgents' failure to disrupt the January election.

Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday defended his comment that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes," saying the recent surge in violence was a final convulsion before the opposition forces collapse.

Since Cheney's initial comment last month, militant attacks have killed hundreds of people in Iraq. Politicians from both major parties have cited the statement as an example of the administration's overly optimistic portrayal of the war.

On Thursday, Rumsfeld and the generals agreed that U.S. military power would not eradicate the entrenched guerrilla force. However long American troops stay, at least remnants of the well-armed and well-financed insurgency will outlast them, the Pentagon officials said, so only political progress can ultimately defeat the insurgents.

"The enemy does not seek to defeat us militarily but to wait us out, sap our confidence and break our will," Abizaid told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

"If [the insurgency] does go on for four, eight, 10, 12, 15 years, whatever … it is going to be a problem for the people of Iraq," Rumsfeld said. "They're going to have to cope with that insurgency over time. They are ultimately going to be the ones who win over that insurgency."

Citing indications of progress, Rumsfeld and the generals said Iraqi military forces were advancing in numbers and ability and that Iraq's elected government and its ministries had grown stronger.

Yet the military commanders also voiced concern that Iraqi insurgents would be emboldened, and U.S. troops would lose heart, if officials in Washington lost their resolve in the face of declining public support.

Although U.S. troop morale in Iraq remains high, Abizaid said, he expressed worries about the mood in Washington.

"When I look back here, at what I see is happening in Washington, within the Beltway, I've never seen the lack of confidence greater," he said.

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Steven Bodzin contributed to this report.