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The Nation

Timing of hearing deals blow to Bush

Congress' scheduling may fuel a fight over the future of Gen. Casey, the outgoing top U.S. commander in Iraq.

January 18, 2007|Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In a setback for the White House, the Senate Armed Services Committee has agreed to hold a hearing Tuesday on the nomination of Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus as the next military commander in Iraq -- a move that could set the stage for a potentially bitter battle over the future of the current top general in the war, congressional officials said Wednesday.

White House officials are concerned that Congress may try to "scapegoat" Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who has overseen the Iraq war since 2004 and has been nominated as Army chief of staff, the service's highest post. Army and administration officials had planned for Casey to be considered first, in the belief that the urgency of appointing Petraeus as his successor would dissuade lawmakers from engaging in a long and divisive fight over his handling of the war.

But last week, several senators pressed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to have Petraeus' nomination sent to them quickly so he could take over command of military operations in Iraq.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the chief advocates of President Bush's plan to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq, has attacked Casey's command of the war and has embraced Petraeus, who shares his support for a troop increase and a change in strategy in Iraq.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another GOP supporter of the troop increase, has argued that the appointment of Petraeus is at least as important to turning around the war as sending additional forces.

Although Defense officials had indicated Casey's nomination would go to the Senate first, White House officials sent over three nominations simultaneously Tuesday -- those of Petraeus, Casey and Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, who has been nominated to head the U.S. Central Command, which oversees all U.S. military activity in the Mideast.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats, at McCain's urging, moved to put Petraeus' confirmation hearing on the committee's calendar. Casey's has not yet been scheduled.

Though he is a strong proponent of the troop increase, Petraeus has been praised by Democrats as well as Republicans. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) indicated during a hearing last week that the committee could act quickly to send his nomination to the full Senate.

But the swift consideration of Petraeus could mean a rougher time for Casey, who has been criticized by McCain and others for failing to seek additional troops or commit existing forces to Al Anbar province, a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency.

The nomination of Casey as chief of staff has drawn comparisons of him and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the controversial commander who oversaw the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968. When Westmoreland was replaced in Vietnam, he too was nominated as Army chief of staff and served in that post for four years.

The Army was forced to scrap plans to nominate Casey's predecessor, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, for a four-star job over fears that his confirmation hearing would devolve into a bitter debate over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the rise of the insurgency in Iraq.

Under Casey's watch, Iraq became embroiled in sectarian violence, and the planned drawdown of American forces had to be shelved. Administration officials have said repeatedly that it is unfair to blame Casey, arguing that the Iraqi government has failed to make the necessary concessions or compromises that could lead to an easing of the security problems.

Gates recommended Casey for the Army's top job, saying he believes that the general's time in Iraq makes him well positioned to understand the strains the war has placed on the service.

But critics of Casey say privately that he should have questioned the administration's strategy more vigorously and contend that it is reasonable to hold him accountable for the lack of success the military has had in Iraq over the last two years.

The next Army chief of staff will oversee Bush's proposal to expand the Army as well as help muster additional forces for Iraq if the troop increase lasts more than a short amount of time.

Democrats may use the Casey nomination to review the missteps in American strategy over the last two years. Some senators are likely to hit Casey with pointed questions over how the Iraq strategy was formed, why it failed and why it was not altered sooner.

"I think there will be some who want to get into it," said a Democratic Senate staffer who requested anonymity when discussing party strategy. "We have not had a nomination like this."

Casey could also come under criticism from Republicans who support the president's plan. Although he has backed the decision to increase the number of troops, he is widely seen as skeptical about whether additional U.S. forces will improve the overall security situation.

And some Republicans worry that Casey, in his new job, could be in a position to undermine the troop increase. As Army chief of staff, he would have no direct say in how the war is fought but would be responsible for providing additional forces for Iraq; any increase in the number of forces requires creativity by the Army to figure out where the personnel can come from. He would also sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which provides advice on the conduct of the war.

Top Army officers argue privately that after handling one of the most difficult jobs on the planet for 2 1/2 years, Casey deserves the top Army post. Army officials have also said that under the current Pentagon rules, if Casey remains unconfirmed for too long, he could lose his four-star rank and be automatically demoted to a two-star general.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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