- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Bush’s choice to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday that an increase in the number of troops in Iraq is giving commanders the forces needed to improve security there.

“Security is better, not great, but better,” said Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing.

However, Adm. Mullen acknowledged under questioning that “there does not appear to be much political progress” in Iraq.

“I believe security is critical to providing the government of Iraq the breathing space it needs to work toward political national reconciliation and economic growth, which are themselves critical to a stable Iraq,” Adm. Mullen said. “Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference.”

He said morale is high, but he doesn’t take for granted the service of U.S. troops. He said the war has spread forces thin.

“I worry about the toll this pace of operations is taking on them, our equipment and on our ability to respond to other crises and contingencies,” he said.

In written answers to prepared questions, Adm. Mullen earlier said he and other members of the Joint Chiefs met with the president and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to discuss the plan in January to pour as many as 30,000 more U.S. forces into Iraq.

“We had rigorous and thorough discussions and debates” of the troop buildup plan, he said. “The president then made his decision, and I am in support of that decision and working to make it succeed.”

Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, are to report to Congress next month on conditions related to the war strategy. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed impatience with progress in Iraq. This week, the chief lawmaking body in Iraq went into recess until next month.

If the United States fails in Iraq, Iran would be a winner, Adm. Mullen said. He said there’s a strong indication that Iran is supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and indications Iran has fed technology into Iraq and Afghanistan that has led to the deaths of U.S. troops.

He said a combination of factors “makes me concerned about Iran and where they’re headed.”

Adm. Mullen acknowledged that slow progress in Iraq is hurting U.S. credibility and encouraging Iran’s regional ambitions.

He said it’s important to see results more than four years into the war. About 160,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, and more than 3,640 Americans have been killed.

“A protracted deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq, with no change in the security situation, risks further emboldening Iranian hegemonic ambitions and encourages their continued support to Shia insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Adm. Mullen wrote.

Adm. Mullen, the chief of naval operations, was chosen to replace Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace as the nation’s top military officer. Mr. Gates decided not to reappoint Gen. Pace for a second two-year term to avoid an acrimonious confirmation hearing over how the Bush administration has handled the war in Iraq.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to vote on Adm. Mullen’s nomination before Congress adjourns Friday for its August recess.

Adm. Mullen’s answers reflect the separation Mr. Gates wants to achieve. In one of the pre-hearing questions, Adm. Mullen is asked by the committee what he considers to be “the most significant mistakes the United States has made to date in Iraq.”

He listed seven mistakes, including the May 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi army, which he says was a “potentially valuable asset for security, reconstruction and provision of services to the Iraqi people.”

Turning the Iraqi troops loose, Adm. Mullen said, provided “a recruiting pool for extremist groups.”