Under Fire on Iraq

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Commander of U.S. Central Command Army Gen. John Abizaid testifies during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee November 15, 2006 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

On Wednesday the Iraq War finally landed squarely at the feet of the U.S. military. At a Senate Armed Services hearing, Gen. John Abizaid, the Arab-American who heads the Pentagon's regional military command with responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan, had his professional judgment and even his honesty sharply questioned. Abizaid, a West Point graduate and combat veteran, had long been held up as the Army's most sophisticated expert on the Middle East.

Politicians have been loath to do anything but praise a person in uniform — especially a senior commander such as Abizaid, who oversees troops in Iraq. But in a noticeable break with that tradition, Democratic Senator Mark Dayton, sounding almost like a jilted lover, openly questioned if Abizaid had been straightforward with the committee: "I always thought I could believe and trust you." Dayton then quoted at length from recent books on the Iraq War in which Abizaid in private reportedly contradicted his public upbeat support for the Administration policy in Iraq. Abizaid said he stood by his previous statements and testimony.

But Abizaid did make a startling admission, apparently for the first time, that he agreed with then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki that there should have been more U.S. troops in Iraq in 2003. Abizaid, who has been increasingly criticized within the military as too cautious and too political, spent the rest of the session defending his view that no more U.S. troops are needed in Iraq now. Abizaid offered nothing new despite the fact that the American view of Iraq has changed dramatically with the election results in the past week. The senators, searching for political cover, needed him to respond. Another Democrat, incoming Committee chairman Carl Levin, warned Abizaid, "'stay the course' is not a strategy for success in Iraq. We should put the responsibility for Iraq's future squarely where it belongs — on the Iraqis. We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves."

Abizaid opened his appearance by saying things had gotten better in Iraq and he was "optimistic." He stated that the U.S. military needed to increase the size of the number of advisors, speed up the provision of logistical support to the Iraqi Security Forces, and continue to push the Iraqi government to disband the militias. In a troubling aside to a question, Abizaid admitted that he had considered sending "significantly more" U.S. troops, but that the Iraqi government had not accepted the proposal.

It wasn't just Democrats that hammered the General. Abizaid faced withering verbal fire from across the aisle too. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham seemed dumbfounded that Abizaid lacked a real sense of urgency and would not entertain the idea of sending in more U.S. troops, especially to Anbar province where, experts say, the Marine Corps have too few troops Instead, Abizaid kept repeating that it is for the Iraqi government to save itself and the country. McCain at one point, grimacing and shaking his head, barked to Abizaid: "I deeply regret that you seem to think the status quo is acceptable... The American people made clear that it is not acceptable."