Murtha: Military Supports Call for Iraq Withdrawal

Rep. John Murtha

In a Nov. 17, 2005, news conference, Rep. John Murtha urges a U.S. pullout from Iraq. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania with strong ties to the military, catapulted into the spotlight recently with his call for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha says U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq support his position.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the question of troop withdrawal from Iraq. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, spoke today at the National Defense University. He didn't mention a timetable. He did say there is no way that we can lose if we maintain our patience and our will, our resolve.

General PETER PACE (Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff): So what is victory in this battle? First of all, it is not Victory in Europe Day; it is not Victory in Japan Day; it is not something where there'll be a signing ceremony.

SIEGEL: That's General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was speaking the day after President Bush gave an address on US strategy in Iraq. Here's some of what he said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough America will cut and run and abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America.

BLOCK: The Bush administration has been under increasing pressure on Iraq. Many say the tipping point came when Congressman John Murtha stunned his colleagues and called for all US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq within six months. Murtha is a hawkish Democrat, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran. He spoke with me today from his district office in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): We need to change direction, and the overwhelming calls I'm getting--the emotional response I'm getting--they're thirsting for a direction, a plan. The latest plan--the president's--is not a plan; it's just the same thing. And when I visit the hospitals and see these troops that are so shot up, I realize we need to change direction. And that change of direction is what I've proposed.

BLOCK: Congressman, you're saying the time has come and the US should pull out fast. A number of your fellow Democrats, though, have some real problems with this. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland said, `A precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster, spawning civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists.' And it sounds like something you yourself wrote in an epilogue to your own book about a year ago. You said, `An untimely exit could rapidly devolve into a civil war.'

Rep. MURTHA: I said 18 months ago that we either had to totally mobilize or we had to get out. A year ago I said we can't win this militarily. I've changed my mind obviously, because we've come to the point where our troops are the targets of the insurgency. There's four plans that I've seen and none of them--three of them are not good. One's the president's plan; that's stay the course; that's not a plan. Two is that you mobilize completely; if you mobilize you'd have to have a draft, and we're not about to have a draft even though I'm for it. The other's advisers that are with the troops. Now when you look at the rosy scenario that the president tries to portray, none of those things are accurate. You know, you can sit here in your air-conditioned office and you can say, `Stay the course,' but let me tell you something. Those troops out in the field are the ones that are suffering.

BLOCK: If the US were to do what you're saying they should and pull troops out within six months, what's the scenario that you see happening there? Would it be civil war and doesn't that matter?

Rep. MURTHA: Let me tell you something. That's up to them. We're caught in the middle of a civil war right now. The military has completed its mission; it's done its duty. It's up to the Iraqis to settle this themselves. We can't let them decide how long we stay. And this is not a decision made by the military commanders, either. These decisions are made by the United States Congress and the president of the United States. We sent them to war and we can only speak for them. The military commanders talk to me all the time privately. And what they say privately is not what they're saying publicly.

BLOCK: Why do you think that is? Why do you think there's a gulf between...

Rep. MURTHA: Well, why do you think it is? It's because they fired Shinseki; that's why it is.

BLOCK: You're talking about General Shinseki, who had called for 200,000 troops that would be needed to stabilize Iraq.

Rep. MURTHA: Exactly, and of course, they had way too few. I am convinced that all you do is kill more Americans if you leave us in there.

BLOCK: There is a political process under way in Iraq, though, and one of your colleagues on the Senate side, Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, thinks that Iraq is actually within reach of a watershed transformation, that this is a prime moment of opportunity and US forces are part of that opportunity.

Rep. MURTHA: Well, Secretary McNamara thought the same thing in 1963. He said, you know, this'll be over in two years. Lyndon Johnson said over and over again how well it was going; he said how many people have been taken care of, how many have been educated in the Vietnam War. We're hearing the same thing now. Just because they say it does not make it so.

BLOCK: When you've gone to Iraq--you were there most recently this past summer--what do commanders tell you?

Rep. MURTHA: They tell me they don't have enough troops.

BLOCK: Not enough troops. Has any of them actually said, `It's time to pull out. We think we're done here and we've got to come home right now'?

Rep. MURTHA: Well, I'll put it this way. I wouldn't say what they've said because they knew who I met with, but I certainly have gotten the message from retired people from all over the country. And this is not up to the military commanders. The military commanders are afraid to say anything. You don't get it. The military commanders are afraid because they'll be fired.

BLOCK: Have they told you that?

Rep. MURTHA: Have they told me that? Isn't it evident?

BLOCK: Well, I'm asking you just based on the tenor of those conversations you had.

Rep. MURTHA: Let me just tell you something. Even sergeants tell me the officers are afraid to say anything. There's no question about it.

BLOCK: If they're telling you, though, we need more troops, that doesn't, to me, sound like a message of, `It's time to withdraw.'

Rep. MURTHA: They want more troops to do the mission that they are given to do, like protect against the Syrian border.

BLOCK: Have they asked for those troops?

Rep. MURTHA: I don't know.

BLOCK: I mean, the president has said if these generals need more troops all they have to do is ask.

Rep. MURTHA: Yeah, well, there's a lot of things that they've said over there that turned out not to be true. For instance, they said the troops were adequately prepared when they went into Iraq. They said there'd be no insurgency. They said there wasn't an insurgency at all. I mean, you go back and look at some of the things they've said, and you find obvious errors and omissions, and either somebody's misinforming the president or he's not listening to the advice.

BLOCK: Given the positions that the president has staked out on the war in Iraq and US troop presence there, do you see any way that he could change what he's been saying, which is that we're there until complete victory is achieved?

Rep. MURTHA: We're going to be out of there--there'll be very few troops left there by the end of the year.

BLOCK: You believe that.

Rep. MURTHA: I believe that.

BLOCK: And how would he explain that then?

Rep. MURTHA: I don't know. That's up to him how he's gonna explain it.

BLOCK: And is the idea you would expect to see them home by the time of the elections in November in 2006?

Rep. MURTHA: I think that could very well be the watershed date.

BLOCK: Congressman Murtha, thanks very much.

Rep. MURTHA: Nice talking to you.

BLOCK: Congressman John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania. He was speaking with us from his district office in Johnstown.

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