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Senate Committee Hears Testimony on Iraq Strategy

February 6, 2007 at 9:26 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: The Pentagon’s top civilian and top military official today made their annual trip to Capitol Hill to promote the president’s defense spending proposals. But numbers and budgets quickly were overshadowed at the Senate Armed Services Committee by questions about Iraq strategy.

Chairman Carl Levin asked Joints Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace whether U.S. troops were fully prepared to carry out the president’s new plan for stabilizing Baghdad.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Can you give us assurance that troops arriving in the theater are going to be fully equipped and trained before they enter combat in Iraq?

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: The short answer to your question is, yes, sir. The timeline that our troops are on will allow us to fully man, train and equip the units before they deploy to Iraq. But the mandate from General Casey is and will remain that no one will leave operating bases unless they are in properly up-armored Humvees.

Properly trained troops?

KWAME HOLMAN: Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy pressed General Pace about readiness, quoting an article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: It talks about -- they had only -- this is talking about the First Brigade, Third Infantry Division -- had only a few days to learn how to fire new rifles. They are deployed to Iraq for the third time. They had no access to the heavily armored vehicles that we're using in Iraq, so they're trained in a handful of old military trucks instead. Some soldiers were assigned to the brigade so late they had no time to train in the United States at all. Such deficiencies decrease the level of troop readiness.

So perhaps you can -- if you'd give us at least your chance to review that article, General Pace, and give us a response.

PETER PACE: Certainly, sir. If I may, sir...

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Yes, sure. Please.

PETER PACE: ... just make sure, because those families need to know...


PETER PACE: ... for sure that the chief of staff of the Army, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Joint Chiefs are steadfast that we are not going to deploy troops until they are properly trained, manned and equipped. The timeline that the brigades are on allows us to do just that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kennedy also asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates about a report that the need for support troops would double the size of the troop increase to some 48,000. But Gates said such support should take the deployment no higher than about 25,000.

Not just 'supporting' Iraqi troops

Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson wondered if the effort to quell violence in Baghdad would mean more risk for U.S. troops.

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), Nebraska: How will this work? Will there be one of ours out on point, as well as another Iraqi on point? What kind of unified command or what kind of dual command exists? And we're not -- it's true, we're not going to be in just supporting behind the scenes. We're going to out front, isn't that correct?

PETER PACE: Sir, we will not be out front by plan. The Iraqis would be the ones going door to door, knocking on doors, doing the census work, doing the kinds of work that would put them out in front for the first part of, if it develops, firefight.

Our troops would be available to backstop them and to bring in the kind of fire support we bring in, but it would not be one Iraqi and one U.S. soldier. In the Iraqi units that are forward, we would our embedded trainers. Some 30, 40 troops would be traveling with them. But they would not be walking point; the Iraqis would be.

Troop reliability

KWAME HOLMAN: Arizona Republican John McCain, a supporter of the president's plan, questioned the readiness of those Iraqi troops.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Recent reports, Secretary Gates, indicate that Iraqi army units are showing up in Baghdad significantly under-strength. Is that accurate? And, if so, is it of concern to you?

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: I received a report at the end of the last week that one of the Iraqi brigades had showed up at 55 percent strength. And I told reporters at a press roundtable at the Pentagon that that wasn't good enough.

I learned in a report from General Casey yesterday that, in fact, they had showed up at 60 percent and that 25 percent were on leave, either to take their pay back home or to protect their home base. So he felt that the level of turnout for the brigade, in his opinion -- and I don't think I'm misquoting him -- was better than expected.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Florida Democrat Bill Nelson was skeptical.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), Florida: If the whole situation of the president's plan is predicated on the reliability of the Iraqi troops -- that when we go in to clear, before we hold, that it's more Iraqi troops than American troops -- they've got to be reliable. And I'm trying to get my hands around, are they reliable or not?

ROBERT GATES: I think it's probably premature, but in a certain period of time, when we have enough data to begin to be able to brief you all, to come up and brief you all and your House colleagues every couple of weeks on how we think they're doing.

SEN. BILL NELSON: What bothers me is the president's plan is predicated on the reliability of the troops, of the Iraqi troops, and yet no one has a handle until we see them in action as to whether or not they're reliable. That doesn't sound to me to be the good way to do a plan.

Commitment of Iraqi leaders

KWAME HOLMAN: Nelson of Nebraska also wondered how committed Iraqi leaders are to the U.S. plan.

ROBERT GATES: It is clear that Prime Minister Maliki intends to fulfill the commitments that he's made.

SEN. BEN NELSON: Is it really that clear? Because he and some of his members of his government have raised questions about whether more U.S. troops were desirable and whether it was going to be an Iraqi military operation in Baghdad.

ROBERT GATES: No, that's absolutely right. And I think that his original hope had been that this would be an entirely Iraqi operation. And it was when his military people began talking with our military people that they, in essence, persuaded him that the Iraqis perhaps weren't ready to do it all by themselves, just like we had to provide air support in this one other attack that just happened last week.

And so he has, I think grudgingly, accepted having U.S. support where he wanted to do it all by themselves. We don't want them to fail.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary Gates and General Pace go before the House Armed Services Committee tomorrow.