By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Senate Democrats impatient to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq will inject a new political dynamic into the debate over the war beginning today as they question the military's top Middle East commander for the first time since their party swept into control of Congress this month.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East, will face questions on the violence in Iraq and what it means for the roughly 145,000 U.S. troops there during scheduled testimony today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, senators from both parties said.
Senior Democrats and Republicans on the committee are deeply divided over basic issues such as troop levels and strategy and whether Iraq is already in a state of civil war. Still, they are united by a concern for American forces. Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), for example, said he will quiz Abizaid on the risks that U.S. troops could face if embedded with Iraqi units under an Iraqi chain of command.
"We've got to be very careful we are not putting at risk life and limb of American forces by putting them with Iraqis," he said in an interview. "What kind of orders will the Iraqi forces receive?" he asked, voicing concern over sectarian influences within the Iraqi military.
Democrats have made it clear that they intend to bolster the committee's oversight role, and an influx of new members, including Democrat James Webb of Virginia, is expected to further invigorate debate. Webb, a former active-duty Marine and one of only a handful of members of Congress with offspring serving in Iraq, secured a seat on the committee yesterday, according to his spokeswoman, Kristian Denny Todd.
The committee plans to hold confirmation hearings Dec. 4 or 5 for former CIA chief Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned the day after the Nov. 7 midterm elections. The panel will also weigh in on the congressionally created Iraq Study Group as well as on a sweeping review of Iraq strategy initiated by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pace review will cover strategy and the viability of increasing or decreasing troop levels in Iraq, as well as stress on the force, according to Warner.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), poised to take over as Armed Services Committee chairman, said that Iraq is headed into an abyss of civil war and that only by beginning a troop pullout in four to six months can Washington exert the necessary pressure on Iraqi leaders to forge political solutions to the country's violence.
What Iraqis "need to hear, and what the American people need to hear, is that we are darned impatient," Levin said at a news conference Monday, recounting a conversation with President Bush.
Levin said he believes a majority of the Senate would now back a bipartisan resolution he initiated on a phased pullout.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a committee member who joined with 40 other senators in backing the resolution six months ago, said in an interview: "The best approach is to clearly state the policy to begin redeployment. The critical problems . . . are political in nature," not military, he said.
Democrats say a driving factor in their push for drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq is the strain on the all-volunteer military from repeated combat zone deployments, as well as from billions of dollars' worth of equipment wear and tear that has hurt the military's preparedness should another conflict break out.
Some Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), advocate increasing the size of the Army, which has about 500,000 active-duty soldiers, to improve readiness and ease the strain on the force.
Leading Republicans, for their part, are arguing against a timetable for troop withdrawals while urging a more measured approach to redefining Iraq strategy.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), set to become the committee's ranking minority member, made it clear that he vehemently opposes a timetable for withdrawing troops and instead favors a substantial increase in U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
If the United States begins a phased withdrawal, "chaos will ensue, and that chaos will spread throughout the region," McCain said in an interview. "We need to get more troops into the equation to try to get Iraqis trained," he said, adding that "the Iraqi military is doing better but is not yet prepared to take over."
McCain, who has advocated increasing U.S. forces in Iraq for years, said that of a string of U.S. mistakes there, "one of our greatest failures was not having enough troops from the beginning."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.