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Senators Take Aim At Iraq War Commander

Gen. Casey defends his work and expresses doubt on adding troops.

February 02, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. general responsible for the Army's Iraq war strategy for the last two years was berated by leading Senate critics Thursday for American military failures, and was accused of providing unduly optimistic assessments of progress as U.S. fortunes sagged.

Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. appeared before the Senate panel that is weighing his nomination to be the next Army chief of staff. The hearing was unusually tense at times, as senators who support the troop increase that has been ordered by President Bush took Casey to task for his leadership of the war.

"I question seriously the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Casey. "And we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy."

Casey has long been a skeptic of increasing the size of the American force in Iraq, and his testimony amounted to a tepid endorsement at best of Bush's controversial new strategy.

The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was an unusual scene for Washington: a highly decorated four-star general being grilled by prominent Republicans while he offered only lackluster support for the president's policies.

But Casey's appearance reflected the split within the military over Bush's war plan. Many younger commanders and rising officers support the new strategy, with its emphasis on counterinsurgency methods. But some senior military leaders remain skeptical about the ability of U.S. forces to end the brutal sectarian violence.

Although Casey is an unenthusiastic supporter of the new strategy, the White House nominated him to become the chief of staff of the Army in part to recognize his long service in Baghdad. Though his new post would represent a nominal promotion, it also would remove him from the chain of command and limit his direct influence over Iraq policy.

Casey faced senators as Congress was wrestling with resolutions to express disapproval of Bush's new war plan and just before today's release of a long-awaited intelligence report that is expected to portray a bleak picture of fruitless U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Thursday's hearing provided senators with a forum to debate the new Bush policy. But because Casey was until recently opposed to troop increases, the toughest questions came from the plan's supporters.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a supporter of the troop increase, asked Casey whether Iraq was secure enough for him to visit downtown Fallouja.

"You could," Casey said.

"Well," Graham shot back, "I asked to go, and they wouldn't let me."

A majority of committee members appeared to support Casey's nomination.

Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he expected a vote on Casey next week. "I will vote for him," Levin said after the hearing. "I think he is qualified to be chief of staff of the Army, and he should not be held responsible for the key mistakes that were made in Iraq and the way policy was set by civilians."

Casey said he supported the president's new approach, and acknowledged some past mistakes. But he continued to emphasize the importance of training the Iraqis -- the cornerstone of his own strategy -- and said that the military might not need all of the additional 21,500 troops Bush is sending to Iraq.

Throughout his 2 1/2 years as the top U.S. commander, Casey has worried that adding troops would slow the development of Iraqi units, a position he restated Thursday.

"Senator, my general belief is that I did not want to bring one more American soldier into Iraq than was necessary to accomplish the mission," Casey said.

Casey said that in December, he asked for two additional brigades -- about 7,000 soldiers -- to improve security in Baghdad. When Bush offered five brigades, Casey said the remaining three could serve elsewhere as a flexible reserve force.

That contrasts sharply with the plan laid out by his successor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is expected to move all five brigades into Baghdad once he assumes his new command in Iraq.

On several occasions, Casey described the new strategy as an "Iraqi plan." "They came up with the plan," he said. "They will lead the plan."

But it was clear in questioning that the Americans had drafted the "Iraqi plan," or at least heavily influenced its development.

When pressed by Levin, Casey acknowledged that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was not enthusiastic about the American troop increase.

"He leans toward not wanting to have to bring in more coalition forces," Casey said.

Attempting to head off perceptions that top commanders disagree with the president, White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday that Casey supported the Bush plan.

"What Gen. Casey was talking about is some suggestions he'd made earlier," Snow said. "The president has made his decision, and it does reflect the wisdom of a number of combatant commanders. And again, it does have the assent of Gen. Casey."

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