Both parties question sending more forces

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats together registered deepening anger and frustration over President Bush's Iraq policy yesterday as top administration officials tried to sell the new version of the Bush war plan to a hostile Congress.

There were no overt moves on Capitol Hill to cut off funding for the troop increase as some had suggested. But the Iraq strategy seemed headed for a serious fight in Washington, as Senate Democrats said they intend to offer a resolution of disapproval and the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, vowed to mount a filibuster in opposition.

But a tumultuous day on Capitol Hill did seem to mark, as Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California observed, "the bipartisan end of a rubber-stamp Senate."

In that spirit, Republican Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire demanded "much more clarity and specifics" from the administration on how the plan would work and specifically how the White House intended to force Iraq's government to take the reform steps it has promised.

"If we don't see more specifics," Sununu said, "then Congress is probably going to step into the void."

Bush announced Wednesday night that he is sending 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, mostly into Baghdad to work with Iraqi security forces to try to take control of the capital. Bush said the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki had agreed not only to pour additional troops of its own into the capital, but also to undertake serious political reforms as well.

The plan outlined by Bush was an adjustment of the basic strategy that has guided U.S. policy in Iraq for three years: to train and equip Iraqi forces to take over security from American troops.

Summing up the frustration of many Americans, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said the Bush administration "took a gamble" in Iraq.

"It's staked American prestige and our national security on the premise that it could go in, overthrow Saddam Hussein and rebuild a functioning democracy. And so far, each time that we've made an assessment of how that gamble has paid off, it appears that it has failed," he said.

"At what point do we say, 'enough'?" Obama asked.

Attempting to answer these concerns, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared at an early-morning news briefing and daylong hearings on Capitol Hill, seeking to explain precisely why they thought this plan would work where others had failed.

"The security plan is designed to have Iraqi forces lead a campaign, with our forces in support, to protect the population of Baghdad from intimidation and violence instigated by Sunni and Shia extremist groups, and to enable the Iraqi government to take the difficult steps necessary to address that nation's underlying issues," Gates told reporters at the White House.

Yesterday, Gates also announced that he's recommending that the Army and Marines boost their numbers by a total of 92,000 over the next five years.

In a sharply worded exchange with Obama, Rice responded directly to concerns that the United States might again see its troops in peril as Iraq's government failed to curb the sectarian militias.

"We're not going to stay married to a plan that isn't working because the Iraqis aren't living up to their end of the bargain," Rice said.

On the difficult issue of dealing with Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who leads a substantial political bloc in al-Maliki's government and controls a powerful Shiite militia, Rice said that is up to the Iraqis.

"To the degree that Sadr is outside of the political process and his death squads are engaged in violence, then they're going to have to deal with those death squads," she said. "And the prime minister said nobody and nothing is off limits."

But whether that means American troops will have to storm the Sadr City strongholds of Sadr's militia was left unclear. Other details of Bush's plan were also hard to pin down.

Precisely how many U.S. troops will go into Baghdad? Not clear, Pace told the House Armed Services Committee. Some of the 21,500 troops Bush mentioned could go to Iraq soon "or not go at all, depending on the situation," Pace said.

How long will it take for the plan to take effect?

"It's going to unfold over time," Gates said. "I don't think anybody has a definite idea about how long the surge would last." He added: "We are at the mercy of anyone willing to strap on a bomb and blow themselves up, in terms of more bloodshed and more violence."

How would anyone know when the plan has worked? What's the exit strategy?

"I think at the outset of the strategy it's a mistake to talk about an exit strategy," Gates said.

And Pace acknowledged, on the question of whether the plan would succeed: "There are no guarantees."

Much of the skepticism centered on how hard the Bush administration will push al-Maliki's government to achieve political reforms and what kind of leverage the United States would wield to ensure such progress.

If al-Maliki does not move effectively, Obama asked, would the United States "start phasing down our troops levels in Iraq?"

"Senator, I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate," Rice replied during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

There was even confusion over what to call the new plan. When Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska called it an "escalation," Rice shot back, "I don't see it, and the president doesn't see it, as an escalation. ... I would call it, Senator, an augmentation."

And given the growing influence of Iran in Iraq, including providing Shiite militias and death squads with sophisticated weapons, newly elected Democratic Sen. James Webb of Virginia asked whether the Bush administration believes it has the authority to launch an attack on Iran without congressional approval.

"Senator, I'm really loath to get into questions of the president's authorities without a rather more clear understanding of what we are actually talking about," Rice said.

Could the president authorize a "hot pursuit" of foreign agents across the border into Syria or Iran, asked Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

"I think I would not like to speculate on the president's constitutional authority or to try and say anything that certainly would abridge his constitutional authority, which is broad as commander in chief," Rice said.

Bush, meanwhile, in a speech to soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., emphasized that the plan for additional troops had been endorsed by U.S. military commanders in Iraq.

"You don't want decisions being made based upon politics," Bush said. "You want your military decisions being made by military experts."

He did not explain what had changed since November, when Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. military forces in the region, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that no troop increases would be effective in Iraq, a comment that several senators brought up during yesterday's hearings.

"The government of Iraq must exhibit the will necessary to succeed," Bush said, adding that while the violence might not stop immediately, "over time we can expect to see positive results. ... Daily life will improve, the Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space necessary."

Boxer, of California, challenged Rice on what had changed since Abizaid testified, as Boxer put it, "that he had checked with every single divisional commander on the ground in Iraq and to a person no one believed that more American troops would improve the situation because the Iraqis already rely on us too much."

In response to this and similar questions, Rice said the sectarian violence unleashed by the bombing of the Shiite shrine the Golden Mosque of Samarra "presented us with a new set of circumstances." That bombing took place in February.

The confusion raised the level of frustration on Capitol Hill, with Hagel, of Nebraska, declaring the policy "morally wrong, tactically, strategically, militarily wrong ... the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.

"If it is carried out, I will resist it," vowed Hagel, who served as an infantry squad leader in combat in Vietnam.

The administration's claim that Abizaid and other generals now support a troop increase even though Abizaid testified against it in the fall, seemed to infuriate some.

"I cannot continue to support the administration's position," Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida told Rice. "I have not been told the truth. I have not been told the truth over and over again by administration witnesses. And the American people have not been told the truth."

In a less fiery way, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the Senate's senior Republican foreign policy expert, said the president had made "an important start" on explaining the plan. But he suggested that the administration had more work to do to explain how long additional U.S. forces would be required and "what contingencies are in place if the situation does not improve."

There was similar confusion about the troop numbers involved with the Bush plan. There are 24,000 American troops assigned to Baghdad and 42,000 Iraqi security forces including soldiers, national police and local police, Pace said. Initial Iraqi reinforcements would bring their numbers up to about 50,000, he said, while the U.S. would move 7,000 into Baghdad relatively quickly, with 10,500 more troops lined up to go into Baghdad, or into Anbar province, if needed, he said.

The Pentagon said yesterday that one brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, as expected, is moving from Kuwait into Baghdad and that one brigade of the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan., will go in February as planned. A brigade of the Minnesota National Guard now in Iraq will be extended 125 days, and two Marine battalions in Anbar province also will be extended, for 60 days. Three additional Army brigades are scheduled to deploy to Iraq in March, April and May, the Pentagon said.

Opinions of troops on the ground in Iraq were mixed, but some welcomed the reinforcements.

"The decisive area is in Baghdad," Col. Michael M. Kershaw, told the Associated Press. "If we can't turn these places over to Iraqis, it won't work."

david.wood@baltsun.com

Wire services contributed to this article.

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