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Administration Officials, Military Officers, Give Testimony On New Iraq Strategy

January 12, 2007 at 4:33 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace returned to Capitol Hill today, to field questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic: the president’s proposed troop increase in Iraq that would bring the U.S. forces in the country to nearly 150,000.

Gates laid out a timeline for the military increase that would dispatch the first of the brigades soon.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Defense Secretary: One brigade will go in the middle of this month. A second brigade won’t go until the middle of next month. And then they will flow at roughly monthly intervals.

So that, after we have sent in just two or three of the brigades, I think we will have — before we have sent in very many additional American troops, we will have a pretty good idea whether, at least on the military side, the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate in terms of fulfilling their commitments.

Sen. McCain expresses skepticism

KWAME HOLMAN: Even Arizona Republican John McCain, who supports the president's plan, was skeptical about the Iraqi commitment.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We've got the first brigade, as you just mentioned, about the mid-January, another one mid-February, another one mid-March. We'll know within a couple of months as to whether it will be effective or not when really the third of five brigades, as I understand it, isn't even there until mid-March?

ROBERT GATES: I think what we'll have some indication of, Senator, is whether the Iraqis are keeping their commitments, in terms of, not whether the operation itself necessarily has been effective, but whether the Iraqis have fulfilled their commitments to provide specific brigades by specific times, whether they are, in fact, allowing the operations to proceed without political interference, whether they are allowing the operations to go into all neighborhoods.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Those are important distinctions. Do you have confidence that the present Iraqi government will carry out the commitments that they have made in recent days?

ROBERT GATES: As the chairman has indicated, the record of fulfilling the commitments is not an encouraging one. But I will say this: They really do seem to be eager to take control of this security situation. They will have control of all but one of their own divisions, military control of all their divisions by March.

Requiring 'benchmarks'

KWAME HOLMAN: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions insisted Iraqi performance be held to strict account.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: We talked about, many of us, and you in the military, talk about benchmarks and metrics. One of the key things is Iraqi participation. This is a serious matter.

Mr. Secretary, do you have right now, and formally completed, the kind of criteria, benchmarks that we will be looking at to determine whether or not the Iraqis are participating adequately?

ROBERT GATES: Yes, sir. I think that the benchmarks that I will be looking at specifically in the early stages, are the Iraqis providing the troops that they promised to provide at the time that they promised to provide them?

Is there political interference at the senior governmental level in tactical decisions and of military operations? And are they allowing -- are the military forces of Iraq and the United States being allowed to go into all parts of the city of Baghdad?

The role of Iraq's neighbors

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates also acknowledged senators' concerns about Iran's role in Iraq.

ROBERT GATES: As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, that mixed record of Iran, in terms of doing things that hurt us and doing a few things that were helpful, has become very one-sided, as they have gained confidence that we're in trouble there and that, in effect, we're on the defensive.

And there have been no positive things, and, in fact, they are now participating and supporting efforts to kill American troops.

KWAME HOLMAN: But some senators expressed concern the Bush plan might spread the war into Iran and Syria.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: I remember Vietnam. I was in the building in those many years. I'm concerned about whether or not this would require U.S. forces to cross the borders into Iran and Syria to implement this program, or does this program envision just actions within the territorial area of Iraq?

GEN. PETER PACE, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Sir, from a military standpoint, no need to cross the Iranian border. We can track down and are tracking down and have added resources to going after the networks in Iraq, regardless of where they're coming from, that have been providing tools to kill our troops.

It is instructive that, in the last couple of weeks, we've found Iranians twice. They continue to raid, and they will continue to raid. I think one of the reasons you keep hearing about Iran is because we keep finding their stuff in Iraq.

A congressional vote?

KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy pressed a congressional vote on upping force levels in Iraq.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: Why not come back to the Congress? Why not come back and permit us to have a vote on this surge?

Let us have 10 days to try and make a judgment and a decision whether the American people are behind this. If they find out that they are, it's going to at least enhance, from the administration's point of view, your view. And if you found out at this time that they're not, it's going to be of value in terms of policy-makers.

ROBERT GATES: I think, quite honestly, that he believes that sometimes a president has to take actions that contemporaneously don't have broad support of the American people because he has a longer view.

There are times when a president has to take actions as he sees the long-term national interest, and sometimes he pays a political price for that.

KWAME HOLMAN: The defense secretary is expected to head to Afghanistan sometime next week.