WASHINGTON - Top U.S. military leaders acknowledged yesterday that the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq has not subsided in the past year, but they denied suggestions the mission was descending into a "quagmire" and stressed that the only way the violence would end is through the creation of political institutions in Iraq.
Their statements were in sharp contrast to comments by Vice President Dick Cheney last month that the insurgency was in its "last throes."
In a sometimes tense hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed the call from some lawmakers to create a timetable for withdrawing the 135,000 U.S. troops from the country.
Patience will be required to defeat the insurgency and "timing in war is never predictable," he said. Setting deadlines, he added, "would throw a lifeline to terrorists who in recent months have suffered significant losses and casualties, been denied havens and suffered weakened popular support."
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the committee, agreed that a fixed date of departure timetable would be "counterproductive." But he said Iraqis should be warned to stick to the timetable of voting for a new constitution in October and holding elections in December or risk the withdrawal of some U.S. forces.
"Suggesting to the Iraqis that we are willing to remain without limit is not only unacceptable to the American people, it is also placing great stress on our armed forces and reducing military recruitment," said Levin.
Levin and other committee members, both Democrat and Republican, said they were troubled by the continued strength of the insurgency, the increased numbers of foreign fighters crossing from Syria into Iraq, and the overstretched U.S. military, which is having trouble finding recruits.
Some members also worried about recent polls showing the American people are souring on the war. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Rumsfeld that in the last year public support in South Carolina has started to turn against the Iraq mission.
"And I'm here to tell you, sir, in the most patriotic state I can imagine, people are beginning to question," said Graham. "And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen. I think we have a chronic problem on our hands."
A Gallup Poll this month found that 60 percent of those surveyed believe the Pentagon should begin withdrawing some or all of its forces from Iraq. Two-thirds of the respondents in an ABC-Washington Post poll said the United States was getting bogged down in the war.
As of yesterday morning, the Pentagon reported that 1,725 American military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. About 13,000 have been wounded, about half of them with injuries serious enough to prevent them from returning to duty. Levin tallied the cost of the war at "$230 billion and rising."
Levin asked Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander in the region, to assess the strength of the insurgency from six months ago, noting that the vice president said in a May television interview with CNN that the insurgency was in its "last throes." Some officials have estimated the insurgency has as many as 20,000 fighters.
"In terms of foreign fighters, I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Abizaid said. "In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I'd say it's about the same as it was."
Asked to contrast his assessment with that of the vice president, Abizaid said: "I'm sure you'll forgive me from criticizing the vice president." When pressed, he added, "I gave you my opinion of where we are."
Appearing yesterday on CNN, Cheney stood by his earlier remarks. "If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period, the throes of a revolution. The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective - standing up a democracy in Iraq - that that's a huge defeat for them. They'll do everything they can to stop it," Cheney said.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he had been briefed by military officials who said that both attacks and casualties have increased. There has been a spike in civilian casualties in Iraq, and May was one of the deadliest months for U.S. soldiers, officials have said, estimating that attacks are averaging about 60 per day.
But Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, responded that the insurgency is "localized," most of the country is relatively peaceful, and that attacks, compared with a year ago, are about the same.
"If they're up, it's only slightly. It's not significant," Casey said.
"But the fact that it's not significantly down isn't encouraging to me," said McCain.
Casey said it would be difficult to gauge how long this level of violence in Iraq would go on, but said he expected a "gradual lessening" of the insurgency as the political process in the country moves forward. Stashes of ammunition placed around Iraq will be available to insurgents "for some time," he added.
McCain also asked how many Iraqi security forces, which the Pentagon places at 169,000, are considered "combat ready." Casey replied that officials have created a four-tiered level of readiness, similar to one used by the U.S. military, though he said the specifics are classified.
"I don't know why it's classified," said McCain. "We need to know how things are progressing in Iraq. That is the key element to success in Iraq."
When Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the committee, suggested the panel go behind closed doors for the details, McCain said, "I think the American people need to know, Mr. Chairman. They are the ones who are paying for this conflict. But I'll drop the question for now."
The hearing's most dramatic moment came from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, who said Rumsfeld has been "consistently wrong about Iraq," from the number of U.S. forces it would take to stabilize Iraq and the lack of equipment to the decision to disband the Iraqi Army.
America, he said, is descending into "a seemingly intractable quagmire," terms that were often used to describe the Vietnam War. "Our troops are dying, and there really is no end in sight," he said.
"Isn't it time for you to resign?" Kennedy asked.
Rumsfeld responded, "Senator, I've offered my resignation to the president twice, and he's decided that he would prefer that he not accept it, and that's his call."
The defense secretary has previously said he offered to resign on two occasions during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
With U.S. assistance, Rumsfeld said, the Iraqi security forces continue to make progress against the insurgents, the country's infrastructure is being rebuilt and the Iraqis are creating a government, with a referendum on a new constitution and upcoming elections.
"Any who say that we've lost this war or that we're losing this war are wrong - we are not," he said.