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Pentagon Officials Defend Iraq Battle Strategy

May 23, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Top U.S. defense officials said Thursday that they decided to enter Baghdad without the large force necessary to secure the city against chaos because waiting for more troops would have squandered the advantage of surprise.

They staunchly rejected charges that the Pentagon had botched the planning for the postwar occupation and said that while the security situation in much of the country is improving, U.S. forces are still engaged in "urban combat" against perhaps 30,000 holdouts in Saddam Hussein's tribal heartland.

In testimony before a sometimes hostile Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz defended what they said was a deliberate choice to storm Baghdad without waiting to assemble enough troops to police the city.

It was the first time that Bush administration officials had acknowledged the looting and crime wave in Baghdad as the unfortunate result of what they maintain was a correct decision to seize the Iraqi capital with a small force that met less resistance than expected.

"It was a judgment going into Baghdad as to whether you waited outside the city to have enough forces that when you went in, you could have complete control of the city, and then potentially having a Fortress Baghdad fight that none of us wanted," Pace told the committee. The alternative, he said, was to take advantage of the speed of the U.S. advance, "to get in there quickly, take it down quickly, not destroy a city with 5 million people in it, and accept the problem of having a less secure environment than you'd like to have."

On balance, Pace said, "I'd much rather be where I am today, at the two-month mark, having police action, than at the two-month mark still pounding away at the city because we waited too long."

Wolfowitz said that "no plan could have achieved all the extraordinary speed of this one and, at the same time, been able to flood the country with military policemen.... Choices had to be made." He said the decision saved American and Iraqi lives.

As the crime and chaos in Iraq continue, Democrats and some Republicans are warning that the United States could see its military victory squandered.

"Victory is at risk," declared Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. "Talk of a reduction in forces by year's end is premature." More U.S. troops may be needed to restore law and order, Lugar said. He added that the committee had heard estimates the reconstruction could cost more than $100 billion. "I believe the process could take at least five years," he said.

Pace said the U.S. has 145,000 troops in Iraq, with an additional 18,000 arriving. He said the number to be sent home is undecided. Britain has 20,000 troops in Iraq.

Wolfowitz declined to predict how long U.S. forces would remain. But he said those who question U.S. resolve should note that U.S. peacekeepers are still in Bosnia eight years after the Dayton accords.

But Wolfowitz, one of the strongest proponents of the war against Iraq, said assertions that the U.S. is failing there suggest a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the security situation.

"A regime which had tens of thousands of thugs and war criminals on its payroll does not disappear overnight," he said. "The people who have created the mass graves that are now being uncovered in Iraq still represent a threat to stability that was not eliminated automatically when the statues came tumbling down in Baghdad."

Charges that the Pentagon ignored lessons from a decade of U.S. peacekeeping operations in Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans and Afghanistan ignore the reality in Iraq, "which is a combination of peacekeeping and low-level combat," Wolfowitz said. In the last two weeks, he said, U.S. forces have faced 50 hostile incidents, in which one soldier was killed and 17 wounded, he said.

In north and north-central Iraq, tens of thousands of armed members of Iraqi security forces, perhaps 30,000, are resisting U.S. forces, Wolfowitz said.

In the last 24 hours, U.S. troops were involved in six clashes with enemy forces. Three of the clashes were in Fallujah, which Wolfowitz called "a hotbed of Baathist activity, some of it with connections to foreign extremists, possibly Al Qaeda." However, Wolfowitz described successes in the southern city of Basra and in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where just 1,000 Marines are peacefully at work helping to rebuild a city of 500,000.

Poland, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Ukraine and Romania have agreed to provide security forces to Iraq. As a result of the United Nations resolution passed Thursday, which gave international approval to U.S. and British occupation of Iraq, more countries will be willing to send troops, the defense officials said.

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