Murtha: Iraq ‘Unwinnable’

Posted May 5, 2004 at 6:49pm

Signaling a new, more aggressive line against the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq, Rep. John Murtha (Pa.), the House Democrats’ most visible defense hawk, will join Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) today to make public his previously private statements that the conflict is “unwinnable.”

Democrats’ new approach came as lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol grappled with how to respond to stunning photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused and braced for debate over a $25 billion additional appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pelosi’s most trusted ally on military issues and a senior defense appropriator, Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, sent a shockwave through the Caucus when he told Members at a leader’s luncheon Tuesday that under the current Bush administration course the United States cannot win the war in Iraq. Murtha’s comments — characterized as angrier and more discouraged than in the past — came on the heels of recently released photos of Iraqi prisoners posed by U.S. soldiers in degrading positions.

The term “unwinnable” is widely viewed among Members as a major shift in the Caucus’ message on the conflict, especially from a veteran, pro-military Member who supported the U.S. role in Iraq.

“He lambasted the administration,” one leadership aide said of Murtha’s comments. “He said, ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’ It was more pessimistic than in the past.”

The House will also vote on a resolution today condemning the alleged rights abuses while also supporting the efforts as a whole of American troops in Iraq. Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and ranking member Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) planned to co-sponsor the measure, the language of which was still being worked out at press time.

Several senior GOP Senators, meanwhile, cautioned that the Senate should not rush to pass a resolution condemning the abuse of Iraqi prisoners until hearings on the issue have been held.

“I think the Senate in due course will deal with this issue,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said of the proposed resolution. “Let us wait until we have at least one segment of open testimony.”

Warner announced on the floor Wednesday that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top Army officials will appear before his panel for two hours on Friday, after which they will provide a classified briefing to the full Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) continued to trade drafts of an Iraqi detainee resolution into the evening on Wednesday. Preliminary drafts condemn the acts of the U.S. soldiers who abused prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, demand those at fault be held responsible, and call for a “full investigation,” including a probe by Congressional oversight panels, according to a knowledgeable source.

Still, Warner was not the only Republican Senator to suggest that Frist and Daschle should put the brakes on plans to vote on a nonbinding resolution as early as today.

“We should give ourselves a chance to investigate before the United States Senate goes out and is condemning it,” said Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). “We should craft a resolution based on what we know, not on what we think we know.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) agreed.

“There’s a question of how you phrase such a resolution so it does the job without getting into another partisan wrangle,” Lugar said.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it was in administration officials’ “best interest” to appear at Congressional hearings so they could “make the case that this is an aberration” among U.S. service members.

On the funding front, Bush administration officials informed Republican leaders Wednesday that they planned to request $25 billion for operations in Iraq beyond what has already been requested.

Though the White House has yet to provide details, the additional money would likely be added to the regular fiscal 2005 Defense appropriations bill and would thus not technically be considered a supplemental, an important point given the administration’s vow not to ask for another supplemental until next year.

Anticipating a request for more funding, the House’s recently passed budget resolution included $50 billion for that purpose, while the Senate’s version included $30 billion.

Reaction to the proposal appeared to be split along party lines.

“I spoke to the President earlier today regarding fiscal year 2005 funding for our troops as they fight the war on terror,” Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a statement. “I told him that I will do everything I can to support our troops and his request for additional ‘05 funding.”

“I think from the overview it’s the right and responsible thing to do,” agreed Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. “As to the details, we’ll have to wait and see what those entail.”

But House Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) was sharply critical of both the way the Bush administration was handling the funding request and the proposed package’s size.

“If they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do in Iraq they’re going to need a lot more than $25 billion,” he said.

Obey was particularly angry that Republicans had received a briefing on the additional funds while Democrats had not, saying the administration’s behavior “treats what should be a bipartisan concern in a partisan manner.”

On the House side, Murtha will join Pelosi at her weekly press briefing this morning to lay out his latest concerns. Murtha joined Pelosi last fall to call for the resignations of several top Bush administration officials for Iraqi intelligence breakdowns.

“They had a conversation and they agreed to do it,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “Members said to him yesterday that he should go public with this, and he thought this was the best way to do it.”

It is unclear whether Pelosi, who opposed the conflict from the start, will follow Murtha’s lead in deeming the war “unwinnable,” but senior aides said she will likely make plain that the administration is on the wrong path and a change in direction is needed. Pelosi shares Murtha’s views — also expressed in the private Member meeting — that the United States should not pull out of Iraq and the troops must receive full and unconditional support.

That sentiment is shared broadly throughout the Caucus.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said the prison photos “struck a note here” and have prompted Democrats to raise their voices about the war. Rahall said he was “quite surprised by the tone yesterday. It was quite angry.”

Angry or not, Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said it would be “impossible” for Democratic criticism on Iraq to get any more aggressive than it already has been.

“Democrats’ rhetoric has already gone so overboard in undermining the troops and undermining the war on terror that it would be impossible for them to be more hyperbolic,” Roy said. “It’s very sad election-year politics.”

Political worries are circulating among Democrats as well, especially moderate and conservative Members who fear a louder anti-war position and even the use of the term “unwinnable” could hurt the party down the road.

“It does cause some heartburn,” said one moderate Democratic lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

One senior House Democratic aide, however, noted that while the sentiments aren’t helpful politically, Murtha doesn’t “speak for the Democratic Party.” His public statements, while heavy in the minds of Pelosi and others in the Caucus, don’t necessarily reflect the direction of the Caucus overall. Murtha also spoke on the topic before the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an off-the-record speech Tuesday night.

House leaders have been in discussions in recent weeks about how to handle the latest happenings in Iraq, which they believe is posing greater political turmoil for Bush as the days pass. The party has been wedged for more than a year on Iraq, given the Caucus was divided on its support of the conflict in the first place.

As House Democrats get more aggressive, they also are tying their message to their endorsement of presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in his effort to knock off Bush in November.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.), a senior Intelligence Committee member, said: “If we are to have a solution, we need to have a clear international community, we’re going to have to have more involvement. Only a new president can achieve that.”

“I don’t think an exit strategy ever existed,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). “I don’t think it exists today. Then we’re seeing soldiers killed at an alarming rate, every day. It will be very difficult to win this war.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.