WASHINGTON — The top American military commander in the Persian Gulf disputed a contention by Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes” and told Congress on Thursday that its strength was basically undiminished from six months ago.
Furthermore, Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago.”
In a CNN interview last month, Cheney said that “the level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint, I think, will clearly decline. I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.”
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s senior Democrat, asked Abizaid if he realized he was contradicting Cheney.
“I don’t know that I would make any comment about that other than to say there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Abizaid. “I gave you my opinion.”
“The fact is that the insurgency has not weakened,” Levin said. “Our men and women in uniform are serving with great honor. They deserve an objective assessment of the situation in Iraq. They deserve a clear layout of the next steps there. They’re not getting either from the administration.”
Rumsfeld adds to Cheney comment
His testimony came as the nation’s top defense leaders rejected calls by some lawmakers for the Bush administration to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from war-torn Iraq. “That would be a mistake,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the committee.
Video: Baghdad bombings Rumsfeld also sought to explain what Cheney meant.
Between now and when an Iraqi constitution is drafted and voted on later this year, “They may very well be in their last throes by their own view cause they recognize how important it will be if the lose,” he said.
Of Cheney’s words specifically, Rumsfeld added: “While I didn’t use them and I might not use them, I think it’s understandable that we can expect that kind of a response from the enemy.”
Rumsfeld engaged in contentious exchanges with committee Democrats.
“Isn’t it time for you to resign?” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked the defense secretary, citing what he called “gross errors and mistakes” in the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.
“I’ve offered my resignation to the president twice,” Rumsfeld shot back, saying that President Bush had decided not to accept it. “That’s his call,” he said.
Rumsfeld told the committee that "timing in war is never predictable. There are never guarantees.
“Those who say we are losing this war are wrong," he added. "We are not.”
But even some Republicans expressed open skepticism with U.S. policy in Iraq, with U.S. deaths now surpassing 1,700 since the war began in March 2003.
“Public support in my state is turning,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “People are beginning to question. And I don’t think it’s a blip on the radar screen. We have a chronic problem on our hands.”
Iraqi forces have 'a way to go'
Rumsfeld, testifying on the progress in training Iraq’s own security forces, said these forces have “a way to go,” but progress was being made.
“Success will not be easy and it will require patience. ... But consider what has been accomplished in 12 months,” Rumsfeld said, citing elections in January, economic improvements, and an increasingly improving security force.
The Bush administration contends that Iraqis must be able to defend their own country against a lethal insurgency before a timeline for bringing home troops can be considered.
But progress has been slower than expected. In recent weeks, insurgents have increasingly targeted Iraqi security forces. And U.S. casualties, war spending and public skepticism continue to climb, ruffling both Republicans and Democrats.
“Leaving before the task is complete would be catastrophic,” Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel.
Call for constitution
Levin said there was “no military settlement without a political settlement.”
He said the Bush administration should tell the Iraqis that if they do not meet their deadline for drafting a constitution — Aug. 15, with a possible six-month extension — the United States will consider setting a timetable for troop withdrawals.
“We must demonstrate to the Iraqis that our willingness to bear the burden ... has limits,” Levin said.
Iraqis are to vote on the proposed constitution in a referendum by Oct. 15. It must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of voters. If approved, elections for a permanent government would be held by Dec. 15.
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