Senators Air Iraq Doubts at Confirmation Hearing

Gen. George Casey is up for the job of Army chief of staff. But senators at his confirmation hearing took the opportunity to criticize him about his former job as the senior U.S. Army officer in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

General George Casey also sat before a Senate panel yesterday at his confirmation hearings to become the Army's next chief of staff. But senators on the Armed Services Committee were more focused on his last job as the senior U.S. officer in Iraq. Casey got some sharp criticism for what happened while he was there. And he said the U.S. could make do now with fewer than the 21,000 additional troops that President Bush is sending - fewer troops. This comes as a new congressional report suggests that 21,000 may not really be 21,000. Those soldiers may have to be backed up by 28,000 support troops.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Most of yesterday's hearings centered on the two and a half years Casey served as the top commander in Iraq and whether he thinks it possible to win there. He said he thinks it is, but that it will take patience and will. Casey acknowledged that he had called for an additional two brigades be sent to Iraq, versus the five the president now plans to send there, but said the extra forces would be handy.

General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army): I believe that the job in Baghdad, as it's designed now, can be done with less that that. But having the flexibility to have the other three brigades on a deployment cycle gives us, and gives General Petraeus, great flexibility.

NAYLOR: General David Petraeus is Casey's designated successor in Iraq. Casey faced some pointed questions from members of the Armed Services panel, none more so than from Republican Senator John McCain, a leading GOP Presidential contender who supports the war but has been critical of how it's been conducted.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I don't question your honorable service; I question seriously, the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq. 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.

NAYLOR: Casey said he took responsibility for the mistakes made in Iraq during his watch. He was accused of having an overly rosy outlook, by McCain, because of some of his past statements and predictions. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, who like McCain believes more forces are needed in Iraq, took aim at Casey's assessment that much of Iraq was under control.

Senator LINDSAY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): What percentage of the country would it be impossible for an American to walk down the street without being afraid of getting shot at or killed?

General CASEY: Probably about half actually, Senator.

NAYLOR: But other senators went easier. Republican John Warner said the civilian leadership that devised the policy deserved the blame. Casey himself said Iraqi forces are beginning to take more of a lead role and that progress in Baghdad would soon be noticeable.

General CASEY: My sense is, we'll start seeing an impact in 60 days or so, I think. One way or the other, we'll start seeing an impact. Assuming things continue to progress positively, it'll probably be the end of the summer before Baghdad is at a level of security that people are more inclined to feel comfortable with.

NAYLOR: While General Casey was testifying, elsewhere critics of the war were pointing to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It says troops levels are likely to rise higher than the Bush administration has let on. The CBO said the administration's plan for 21,000 additional combat troops would require 15,000 to 28,000 additional support troops at a possible cost of $27 billion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said such a commitment of resources, in her words, quote, "should have a much greater likelihood of success than I heard expressed when I was in Iraq last week."

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: More than 3,000 U.S. troops have died in Iraq. And you can chart military and civilian casualties at npr.org.

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