MARGARET WARNER: President Bush sent four Pentagon officials, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to Capitol Hill today to reassure Congress that they are making progress in Iraq. But in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, appeared to soften his earlier assurances that substantial numbers of U.S. troops will come home as early as next spring. Bringing American soldiers home depends on training enough Iraqis to take their place. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona pressed for specifics on how that was going.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: General Abizaid, there was a report sent over, I think last June, that three of the hundred Iraqi battalions were fully trained and equipped, capable of operating independently. What is that number now?
GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: The number now is, if you're talking about level-one trained --
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yeah.
GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It's one.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: At one battalion?
GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Right.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: The previous report was you had three battalions. Now we're down to one battalion.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Susan Collins of Maine followed up.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: It doesn't feel like progress when we hear today that we have only one Iraqi battalion that is fully capable. Have we lost ground in the training of Iraqi security forces?
GEN. GEORGE CASEY: When we say a unit is fully capable, that means something to us. It means that they are capable of going out and conducting operations without any other support. That's a high standard, and we recognize that. So have we lost ground? Absolutely not.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I think reality is these folks are not going to end up at a level of US forces, period. There isn't a military in the Middle East that's at anywhere near US Levels.
MARGARET WARNER: Massachusetts Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy asked about persistent reports that insurgents had infiltrated those Iraqi units.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Who are we helping to stand up? And are the insurgents benefiting from the military training and the equipment and using inside knowledge to ambush and kill our soldiers? Can you assure us, Mr. Secretary, the American people, that we're not training the insurgents in the Iraqi security forces?
DONALD RUMSFELD: It's a problem that's faced by police forces in every major city in our country, that criminals infiltrate and sign up to join the police force. We know that this is a difficulty. They do have a vetting process. They also today have a better insight into it, as General Casey said, because they have embedded Americans in the Iraqi forces, so they are better able to see how the leadership is, where the weaknesses are and where the possible infiltrations might have occurred.
MARGARET WARNER: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioned another previous statement by Pentagon officials.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The last time we were here the insurgency was 1 10th of 1 percent. And I was amazed at how you could pick a number so accurately, and I was skeptical if anybody really knows the number of insurgents over there to the point that it's 1 10th of 1 percent. And when you say that, it bothered me. Do you still believe that?
GEN. GEORGE CASEY: Senator, what I said was even by our most pessimistic estimates of the insurgency we estimated it to be less than 1 10th of 1 percent of the overall population of Iraq. And I think that's still about right.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: And my comment to you is that you have no way of knowing and no one does. And I don't have any confidence in that number. I know you're on the ground; I know you're risking your life, but the point we've learned about Iraq -- that it's fluid and it changes.
MARGARET WARNER: Under skeptical questioning, Joints Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers insisted the US has always had enough American troops in Iraq. That prompted this retort from Sen. McCain.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: General Myers seems to assume that things have gone well in Iraq. General Myers seems to assume that the American people, the support for our conflict there is not eroding. General Myers seems to assume that everything has gone fine and our declarations of victory, of which there have been many, have not had an impact on American public opinion.
Things have not gone as we had planned or expected, nor as we were told by you, General Myers. And that's why I'm very worried, because I think we have to win this conflict.
GEN. Richard MYERS: I don't think this committee or the American public has ever heard me say that things are going very well in Iraq. This is a hard struggle. We are trying to do in Iraq what has never been done before. But I think I've been a realist, and I think I trust the judgment of people on the ground and people on the joint staff that have just come back from Iraq, the battalion commanders, the brigade commanders, the general officers.
MARGARET WARNER: Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe asked what would happen if the US pulled out of Iraq now.
SEN. JAMES INHOFE: You know, the cut-and-run caucus is alive and well here in Washington. I'd just like to have you make any comment you can make. If we should surrender, if we should cut and run at this time, what would be the result?
GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: In the long run, there's nothing to be afraid of. We can win the fight. It's difficult. It's costly. But the implications of allowing the region to become dominated by the ideology of al-Qaida are the same as the implication in the years previous to World War II of allowing fascism to become the ideology of Germany. It will lead to a big war that none of us can stand. We have to fight. We have to win.
GEN. Richard MYERS: My view is that as soon as we pull out that would embolden this al-Qaida organization, their violent extremist techniques, and that surely the next 9/11 would be right around the corner. It would embolden them beyond belief if we were to cut and run, as some have said. And we can't afford to do that.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: This hearing stands in recess.
MARGARET WARNER: This afternoon, the four men headed over to another hearing on the House side of the Capitol.