Even pro-defense Dems want out of Iraq

Though they believe the military situation in Iraq has begun to stabilize, Democratic congressmen with strong defense credentials continue to say U.S. involvement needs to end because of the cost, the toll it’s taking on the Army and the Iraqi government’s political failures.

Reps. Adam Smith and Norm Dicks, both Washington state Democrats, said in interviews last week that Congress needs to keep pressuring President Bush to change his Iraq policy. They said the administration’s single-minded attention on Iraq is allowing an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There is no question, in terms of achieving greater stability in Iraq, progress is being made,” Smith said a week after returning from his third trip to that country.

“But we cannot afford to keep spending $200 billion a year and keep 100,000 troops there indefinitely.”

Dicks said there has been “some short-term military progress” in Iraq. But he said there has been no progress on the political side as Iraqi leaders have failed to negotiate any reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, to allow former Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein back into the government and to decide how to distribute revenues from oil sales.

“We need a change in direction,” Dicks said. “Can we get it from President Bush? I doubt it.”

Smith and Dicks said they could not support cutting off funding outright for the troops, though both supported a measure last week that would have provided only $50 billion of the $200 billion the administration sought in emergency war funding and would have set a “goal” of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq by December 2008.

The measure was narrowly approved in the House but failed in the Senate. Democrats suggested that the Pentagon could fund the war into next spring using some of the $460 billion included in a defense appropriations bill signed by Bush last week.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon has little “wiggle room” in its budget. Gates said that unless Congress provides the entire $200 billion, the Army would have to cease operations at its bases in mid-February and furlough 200,000 civilian and contractor employees.

Smith is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the panel’s terrorism subcommittee. Earlier this year, he visited the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Dicks is a senior Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee and is recognized as one of the most knowledgeable House members on security issues.

Dicks and Smith said they expect additional votes on emergency war funding.

“The only way to stop (the war) is to cut funding, and that is a blunt instrument,” Dicks said. Rather than using spending bills, Congress needs to pass an authorizing measure changing the course of the war, he said.

Smith said he supported providing only $50 billion in so-called bridge funding because of the necessity of trying to “implement the policy you want. But I am not one of those people who say they will never provide the money.”

In Iraq, Smith met with Gen. David Petraeus, who commands U.S. and multinational forces, and with Special Operations units, which his subcommittee oversees.

Smith said there were two reasons for the improved security atmosphere in Iraq: Al Qaeda has lost the support of local people, and U.S. commanders started working with the militias and tribes.

“Was the surge a success? I don’t know,” Smith said. “Did we need an additional 30,000 troops? I don’t know.”

Smith said the current administration plan is to start withdrawing the U.S. troops committed in the surge. “But their plan is to keep the pre-surge level of 130,000 troops indefinitely,” he said.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda has begun to re-emerge in other global hot spots, and the United States doesn’t have the forces to deal with them, Smith said.

“We are putting all our eggs in one basket, Iraq. And al Qaeda has a free hand,” he said. “If we lose Afghanistan and Pakistan, what have we accomplished in Iraq?”

(Contact Les Blumenthal at lblumenthal(at)mcclatchydc.com.)

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