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THE NATION

Joint Chiefs pick sees little political progress in Iraq

Despite better security, Mullen tells senators, reconciliation is the key.

August 01, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House's nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate panel Tuesday that the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was beginning to improve security, but the Iraqi central government was making little headway toward the political reconciliation that is key to stabilizing the country.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, currently chief of naval operations, said that since the troop buildup began this year, security was "better -- not great, but better." Yet, unless a political reconciliation can be worked out, he said, "no amount of troops and no amount of time will make a difference."

Mullen -- who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee with Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, nominated to be Joint Chiefs vice chairman -- said he wanted to postpone judgment about the U.S. mission until mid-September, when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are to make a much-anticipated report on the results of the buildup.

As Joint Chiefs chairman, Mullen would succeed Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who has been criticized for being too deferential to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mullen, who fielded questions cautiously during a three-hour confirmation hearing, won praise from committee Democrats and Republicans. He and Cartwright were expected to be confirmed easily.

Mullen said that one of the greatest challenges in his new job would be trying to strengthen a force that had been badly strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military "is not unbreakable," he said.

He said the administration did not want to shrink its forces in Iraq until conditions had been stabilized, but the need to avoid increasing strains on troops would compel the Pentagon to begin a downsizing next spring. Unless the force begins to shrink in April, the Pentagon will have to increase deployments to 18 months, a step officials say they do not want to take.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Mullen whether he agreed that Petraeus was, in fact, limited in what he could do with the U.S. force because of this need to ease the burden on the troops.

"I think that's fair, senator," Mullen replied.

Although U.S. officials have hailed progress in Al Anbar province, where Sunni tribal leaders are joining forces with Americans to battle Al Qaeda militants, Cartwright said Al Qaeda had shown a dangerous capacity to refill its ranks.

"They seem to have an unlimited pool from which to draw from if you're on the battlefield," he said. "In other words: As we defeat them, others come in behind."

Cartwright, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, said he thought victory in Iraq was achievable, but "it's going to be a challenge."

Mullen said that to prod the Iraqi leadership toward a reconciliation, U.S. officials needed to create as much pressure on them as they could. The debate in the United States over whether to withdraw U.S. forces is valuable in creating such pressure, he said.

But, he added: "I'm not sure it's had the impact some of us would expect it to have in terms of them moving forward politically in some of the other areas, but particularly politically."

Mullen expressed again the Pentagon's unhappiness with the State Department and other nonmilitary U.S. agencies for failing to fully live up to their obligations to help build the Iraqi government and stabilize the country.

He said these agencies were gradually providing volunteers for provincial reconstruction teams -- small groups sent to communities to help strengthen local governments and services. But, he said, he remained "concerned about the pace of that .... It's not where it needs to be."

One senator, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), went further, suggesting that the military should be credited with showing progress in stabilizing Iraq and that the failing effort to bring Iraq's leaders to a political deal was a State Department responsibility.

"It's not the military's primary responsibility, is it, to work with the Iraqi government to deal with the political problems that they're facing?" Sessions asked. "We've created a situation in which the military, in my way of thinking, is the one entity that works in Iraq."

Mullen also listed Iran as among his foremost concerns. He said there were signs that Tehran was helping the Taliban in Afghanistan, even as the Iranian government has fed into Iraq dangerous military equipment that has killed and injured U.S. troops.

He acknowledged that the duration of the Iraq mission had weakened the U.S. position and encouraged Iran's ambitions in the Middle East.

"A protracted deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq, with no change in the security situation, risks further emboldening Iranian hegemonic ambitions and encourages their continued support to Shia insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan," he said in written responses to the committee's questions.

paul.richter@latimes.com

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