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McCain betting big on Iraq

His long-sought 'surge' may be working, but he's been wrong too.

March 23, 2008|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As America's war in Iraq enters its sixth year, Sen. John McCain is hoping that his long effort to send thousands more U.S. troops -- a "surge" that has helped lower casualties -- will propel him into the White House.

But McCain's record on Iraq is decidedly mixed. If the Arizona Republican proved prescient in his calls for a military buildup, many of his other predictions and prescriptions turned out wrong.

Before the war, McCain predicted a quick and easy victory, not a vicious insurgency. He issued dire warnings about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction but didn't read the full 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that showed gaps in the intelligence.

Soon after the March 2003 invasion, however, he began criticizing the Bush administration's management in Iraq and clashed repeatedly with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In mid-2003, he started advocating a larger U.S. force to battle the insurgency, a strategy the White House finally approved last year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, March 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
McCain on Iraq: An article in Sunday's Section A about Republican Sen. John McCain's positions on the Iraq war said investigations, including the 9/11 Commission Report and a report this month financed by the Pentagon, found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. The commission report said there was no evidence of a "collaborative operational relationship" between the two.

McCain did not publicly embrace or join the hard-core neoconservatives who pushed hardest to unleash the U.S. military against Baghdad before the war. But McCain backed many of the same policies.

He repeatedly urged backing Iraqi emigre groups, internal dissidents and other proxy forces to overthrow Hussein. His hawkish views carried weight as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Pentagon.

In 1998, he was among the cosponsors of the Iraq Liberation Act. The law set "regime change" in Baghdad as U.S. policy and mandated support to opposition groups seeking to overthrow the dictator.

Among the major beneficiaries was the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based exile group headed by Ahmed Chalabi.

The CIA had initially sponsored the group but broke with the controversial leader in 1997, saying he could not be trusted. Under the new law, Chalabi's group received almost $33 million from the State Department, until U.S. officials found financial improprieties and ended the arrangement.

McCain and Chalabi met several times but were not close allies, aides to both men said. "Sen. McCain wasn't pushing one group over another," said Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign policy advisor.

Asked by The Times this month if he regretted backing the 1998 law, which produced few discernible results other than bolstering Chalabi, McCain said he did not. Chalabi, though initially touted by neoconservatives as a future leader of Iraq, failed to garner significant support in elections.

McCain said that by 1998, U.N. sanctions against Iraq were "breaking down" and Hussein had defied numerous Security Council resolutions. "Every intelligence agency in the world believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction," he added. "The policy was not successful."

McCain cited the same reasoning when asked why he and nine other congressional leaders urged President Bush in a letter dated Dec. 6, 2001, to next target Iraq since the Taliban regime had collapsed in Afghanistan.

It is "imperative that we plan to eliminate the threat from Iraq," the lawmakers wrote. "We believe that we must directly confront Saddam sooner rather than later."

Later that day, McCain told MSNBC that it is "possible, if not probable, that internal opposition forces can prevail over time." Asked if it wouldn't require 100,000 U.S. soldiers as occupation troops, McCain demurred. "Oh, no," he said. "I don't think so at all."

Those predictions proved inaccurate. Worse, U.S. forces and local militias then were searching in vain for Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora redoubts of eastern Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence later concluded that Bin Laden had escaped the dragnet in early December, prompting criticism that the White House ignored the Al Qaeda chief to focus on Hussein.

McCain doesn't buy it.

"I know of no one who believes attention to Iraq at that point diverted our attention from Tora Bora," McCain said, when asked about the timing of the letter. "We should have put more boots on the ground there to apprehend [Bin Laden]. Everyone agrees. But I have no reason to believe that because we urged attention to Iraq, it had any tactical effect on the battleground."

No Al Qaeda link

By the following fall, McCain offered unstinting support to the Bush administration as it sought to rally the nation for war. In September 2002, McCain told CNN that he expected "an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time."

But McCain openly disputed Bush administration claims that Hussein appeared linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "I doubt seriously if there's this close relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," he told CBS News in September 2002.

Postwar investigations, including the 9/11 Commission Report and a report this month financed by the Pentagon, found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime.

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