By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff | June 24, 2005
WASHINGTON -- The top US military commander in the Middle East warned yesterday that troops are questioning whether the American public supports the Iraq war and implored political leaders to engage in a frank discussion about how to keep the country behind a mission that the armed forces believe is ''a war worth fighting."
Army General John Abizaid said that without that support, the military's ability to prevail against Iraqi insurgents and Islamic extremists will be at serious risk.
''When I look back here, at what I see is happening in Washington, within the Beltway, I've never seen the lack of [public] confidence greater," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he testified along with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army General George Casey, the commander of coalition troops in Iraq. The group also appeared before the House Armed Services Committee.
''I can tell you that when my soldiers ask me the question whether or not they've got support from the American people . . . that worries me," Abizaid told senators. ''And they're starting to do that. And when the people that we're training, Iraqis and Afghans, start asking me whether or not we have the staying power to stick with them, that worries me, too."
He warned lawmakers that ''American soldiers can't win the war without your support, and without the support of our people."
The head of the US Central Command delivered the unusual political advice as top Pentagon officials faced tough questioning on Capitol Hill that displayed vast differences over the direction of the Iraq war amid the recent surge in insurgent attacks and US casualties.
Abizaid's testimony underscored the worsening political rancor in Washington amid growing concern from some lawmakers that the United States may be losing the war in Iraq.
Republicans and Democrats heard a fierce defense of the US effort yesterday from Rumsfeld, who said the progress that is being made on the ground, both militarily and politically, is being dismissed. Accusations by committee members that the Bush administration is falsely portraying the situation were met with countercharges from the military that the progress of the war and reconstruction are being misrepresented by politicians and the media. They also insisted that the United States is not losing and that a stable, democratic Iraq can be achieved.
''Any who say we have lost or are losing this war are wrong," Rumsfeld told the Senate panel, resisting calls from both parties to set a timetable for a US withdrawal. ''We are not."
Committee members had some particularly tough words for Rumsfeld. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, ticked off a litany of what he called the administration's ''gross errors and mistakes" and accused the Pentagon chief of leading the United States into a ''quagmire."
Rumsfeld responded that Kennedy was engaging in a ''world-class stretch" of the facts.
''This war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged," Kennedy said, repeating his calls for Rumsfeld's resignation. ''And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire."
''Well, that is quite a statement," Rumsfeld responded. ''There isn't a person at this table who agrees with you that we're in a quagmire and that there's no end in sight."
He also said that President Bush had rejected his resignation offers and ''that's his call."
Later in the hearing, however, the Senate's most senior member, Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, scolded Rumsfeld, telling him ''to get off his high horse" and stop lecturing the Congress.
''You may not like our questions, but we represent the people," Byrd said. Pulling out a copy of the Constitution, he added: ''I've had my fill of the administration forgetting that this is a constitutional system in which there are three separate, but equal, branches."
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, referring to repeated battles with insurgents in some Iraqi cities, said, ''Too often, we are seeing that we are going into the same places we have been in before."
After the hearing, Kennedy took to the Senate floor to press his point. ''It is time for Rumsfeld to take off his rose-colored glasses," Kennedy said. ''It is time to level with the American people instead of painting a rosy picture."
Citing some of Rumsfeld's assessments, Kennedy asked: ''What planet is he on? Perhaps he is still in the mission-accomplished world," a reference to the banner behind Bush in May 2003, when the president declared major combat operations had ended.
In packed hearing rooms on both sides of the Capitol, Abizaid and Casey acknowledged that the overall strength of the insurgency remains at about the same level it was a year ago.
''I will tell you that there is sufficient ammunition stashed around Iraq purposely that is available to the insurgents that will be available to them for some time," Casey, the commander of coalition troops, told the House panel.
Another worrisome trend, Abizaid said, is the greater number of foreign extremists coming into Iraq from nearby countries.
''There are more foreign fighters coming into the country than six months ago," Abizaid said. ''We've also seen an influx of suicide bombers from North Africa, specifically Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco."
Myers, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said that many of them are slipping into Iraq from Syria, and said that ''given the tight control the government there maintains, you have to assume that they have some knowledge of what is going on in their capitals and in their land. And I think that's inexcusable; it disrupts stability in Iraq."
Pressed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's ranking Democrat, Abizaid declined to agree with recent comments by Vice President Dick Cheney that the Iraq insurgency was ''in its last throes."
While portraying a difficult road ahead, the generals said the war is still winnable if Iraqis can move ahead with drafting a constitution, holding elections, and helping to create law and order. ''So when the political process takes hold here, I think you will see a gradual lessening of the insurgency," Casey said.
The issue of US public support was a theme throughout the day, and the administration and congressional critics of the war received their share of the blame for overly politicizing the war.
When Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, remarked that public opinion appeared to be ''tipping away from this effort," Rumsfeld -- in a shot at critics of the administration -- responded, ''I have a feeling they're getting pushed myself."
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, blamed the administration for fueling some of the divisions, saying some statements from the White House question the patriotism of those who raise concerns about the current strategy.
''I would not in any way question the resolve, the toughness, the patriotism of anybody who raises legitimate questions and has disagreements about how we are to pursue our objectives," she said. ''And with due respect, I think it would be helpful if we would hear a little bit more of that tone from our president and from our vice president and from our other high-ranking officials in the administration.
''I'm old enough to remember how deeply divided our country was in Vietnam. I never want to see that again. We may have disagreements about how to engage in this conflict and how to win it, but I never want to live through that again. And I don't think any of us do."