General Warns Senators Against Pulling U.S. Troops from Iraq

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In an armed service committee hearing Wednesday, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East warned Congress not to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. Gen. John Abizaid was grilled by senators, including John McCain.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's get some news from the capital that the president has temporarily left behind. An American general says his forces have four to six months to get Iraq right. General John Abizaid is in charge of U.S. forces across the Middle East, and he acknowledged yesterday has limited time before Iraq's violence is impossible to control.

Abizaid was speaking with a group of senators, including Democrats who want to begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops, which Abizaid warns could only increase the violence. NPR's Guy Raz has covered Iraq in the past and was listening to yesterday's testimony.

And, Guy, what did you hear?

GUY RAZ: You know, basically, Steve, I think General Abizaid, and then shortly after him the CIA Director Michael Hayden and then the Defense Intelligence chief Michael Maples were all raked over the coals, for lack of a better term. With the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, on his way out, Abizaid is now essentially the public face of the Iraq strategy. And he's no longer really shielded by that layer of protection that Rumsfeld provided. Rumsfeld was really able to absorb a lot of the criticism.

Abizaid now appears to be the whipping boy for members of Congress, particularly for Republicans like John McCain, who are clearly upset over the election outcome.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): General, it's not encouraging to us. It's not encouraging to those of us who heard time after time that things are, quote, progressing well, that we're making progress, etc. Because we're hearing from many other sources that that's not the case.

RAZ: And, Steve, McCain really didn't disguise his post-election fury, a sentiment I think that really hovered over the Republicans on that committee. And also in sense hovered over Democrats clearly for different reasons, very much emboldened by the election outcome, in particular for Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who is slated to take over that committee in January as the chairman.

Levin was very stern, very confident, and he asked Abizaid about a recent report in The New York Times that essentially implicates an Iraqi military division of serving as a kind of freelance sectarian death squad.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Are you familiar with that specific report?

General JOHN ABIZAID (U.S. Army): I'm familiar with the article that appeared in The New York Times.

Sen. LEVIN: Was that accurate?

Gen. ABIZAID: It's not completely accurate, no.

Sen. LEVIN: Was it essentially accurate?

Gen. ABIZAID: They're certainly concerned that in some units there is infiltration by sectarian groups.

Sen. LEVIN: Did the events that were described there occur?

Gen. ABIZAID: Did the events described in the article…

Sen. LEVIN: The event that was described there in that article occur?

Gen. ABIZAID: I can't really say that the article was exactly accurate.

INSKEEP: The pauses there seem almost as revealing as the words.

RAZ: Yeah, and that really was what this hearing was about. What wasn't said rather than what was said. And after about an hour of this, Abizaid was then freed to go to the House side to do it all over again. The Senate Armed Services Committee carried on with the intelligence chiefs Hayden and Maples. Hayden basically describing the situation in Iraq as chaotic. Al-Qaida is a satanic terror, he said. Essentially warning that the violence in Iraq is increasingly becoming sectarian.

General MICHAEL HAYDEN (Director, Central Intelligence Agency): Sectarian violence now presents the greatest immediate threat to Iraq's stability and future.

RAZ: Now the Defense Intelligence chief Michael Maples tried to put a brave face on, but it wasn't easy, especially under questioning from Carl Levin.

Sen. LEVIN: What is your current assessment of the course that we're on? Are we on a course of success currently in Iraq?

General MICHAEL MAPLES (Director, Defense Intelligence Agency): A very difficult question because it's a very complex issue, and there are many variables that will determine our success or failure I think in Iraq.

INSKEEP: That's Michael Maples, he's the Defense Intelligence chief. He was under questioning from Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, and we're talking with NPR's Guy Raz. And, Guy, were you surprised to see these generals questioned so intently?

RAZ: I was, especially if you compare them to previous hearings. It seems as if the Republicans are clearly angry over the election outcome. The Democrats are emboldened. They're about to take over this committee. When it comes to somebody like Abizaid, obviously all the members on this committee respect him immensely. I mean a novelist couldn't have written a better character: Arab-American, fluent Arabic speaker, Harvard/Stanford/West Point standout. But he is now the public face, and he's under a lot of pressure. Because what came out of the hearings yesterday was that on both sides of the partisan divide there seems to be unanimity that the strategy isn't working.

INSKEEP: Do the generals think the strategy is working?

RAZ: Well, it's interesting because the generals seem to indicate that the strategy is both working and not working. And that is what John McCain essentially was pushing Abizaid on. I mean he was saying you're advocating the status quo. Abizaid was saying no, I think that we need to train Iraqi forces faster so essentially it can expedite our exit from Iraq.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Guy Raz.

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