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Mullen Outlines Iraq Challenges at Confirmation Hearing

Mullen replied, "Yes, sir, that's fair."

He said he was committed to "resetting, reconstituting and revitalizing our armed forces," acknowledging, "There is strain. We are stretched." Although recruitment and retention generally remain good and "morale is still high," he said, "I worry about the toll this pace of operations is taking on [service members and their families], our equipment and on our ability to respond to other crises and contingencies."

"The U.S. military remains the strongest in all the world, but it is not unbreakable," Mullen said. "Force reset in all its forms cannot wait until the war in Iraq is over."

Levin expressed skepticism that Iraqi political leaders can take the necessary steps toward reconciliation, saying they "remain frozen by their history." He described the Iraqi parliament as "at a standstill," with nearly every session since November forced to adjourn because too few legislators showed up.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) voiced similar doubts about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to meet its commitments.

"So the surge is moving forward successfully," he said. "But the Maliki government is sliding backwards and is failing in the partnership that was established as the predicate, the foundation, for the surge concept."

In response to questions, Mullen cautioned against pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq "expeditiously," saying he was concerned about the impact of a "rapid withdrawal," not just on Iraq but on the rest of the Middle East.

Asked by Levin if Iraqi leaders should be pressured to reach political settlements, Mullen said, "I think we need to bring as much pressure on them as we possibly can."

Warner asked Cartwright about the effect on U.S. troops of risking life and limb when the Iraqi half of the partnership, the Maliki government, "is absolutely failing." The Marine general replied, "They believe in their mission. They're going to do their best to provide the headroom . . . to allow that government the opportunity. But there comes a point at which they're going to look at that and say, 'How much longer and for what price?' if progress isn't seen."

Asked by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) about U.S. prospects for "winning" in Iraq, Mullen said, "Based on the lack of political reconciliation at the government level . . . I would be concerned about whether we'd be winning or not."

Cartwright said, "I think we can win" but that "it's going to be a challenge."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) asked if Mullen agreed that even with U.S. tactical successes in parts of Iraq, the strategy cannot succeed without Iraqi political action.

"Yes, ma'am," the admiral replied. "I think the lead issue is political reconciliation for that government, and progress on the political leg of the security, economic and political three-legged stool . . . absolutely has to happen." He added, "I still maintain that if we aren't making progress in that realm, the prospects for movement in a positive direction are not very good."

Elaborating on his concerns about Iran, Mullen told the committee that in its animosity toward the United States, the Shiite Muslim government in Tehran is now supporting its former enemy, the radical Sunni Muslim Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

"That strategic shift . . . for me is a big deal," he said. He said Iranian technology used in Iraq to create more powerful roadside bombs "is now making its way into Afghanistan" and killing U.S. soldiers and their allies.

In his written responses to committee questions, Mullen listed seven of "the most significant mistakes" made by the United States to date in Iraq. Among them, he identified Washington's failure to "fully integrate all elements of U.S. national power in Iraq," the failure to "establish an early and significant dialogue with neighboring countries," the U.S. attempt to occupy the country with "an insufficient force," the disbanding of the entire Iraqi army shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion and the pursuit of a de-Baathification process that "proved more divisive than helpful" and created a "lingering vacuum in governmental capability."

Mullen pledged to take an active role in any contingency planning for a withdrawal from Iraq. But he warned that "U.S. vital interests in the region and in Iraq require a pragmatic, long-term commitment that will be measured in years, not months."

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