Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday told Congress that al Qaeda will establish a stronghold in Iraq's Anbar province if U.S. troops pull out prematurely and that the group is reacting to the war debate in Washington by stepping up attacks.
Furthermore, the entire war effort will be disrupted unless Congress quickly passes an emergency funding bill acceptable to President Bush, he said.
Mr. Gates' testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee preceded today's scheduled House vote on a bill that the White House promises to veto because it rations war spending and sets up a July vote to cut off funds if progress in Iraq is inadequate.
"If we were to withdraw, leaving Iraq in chaos, al Qaeda almost certainly would use Anbar province as another base from which to plan operations not only inside Iraq, but first of all in the neighborhood and then potentially against the United States," Mr. Gates told the committee.
The hearing was on the $481 billion Pentagon budget request for the next fiscal year, which is separate from the nearly $100 billion that Mr. Bush requested to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Mr. Gates said delays in approving emergency funds - which the president asked for more than three months ago - have hampered the war effort.
He said al Qaeda is a "thinking enemy" that has adapted its strategies as the United States changes its own. The group also is expanding both its organization and terrorist capabilities, Mr. Gates said.
"We know that al Qaeda has re-established itself... on the western border of Pakistan where they are training new recruits," he said "They have established linkages now in North Africa Al Qaeda has actually expanded, I would say, its organization and its capabilities." The Army has slowed spending at bases in the United States and plucked $1.6 billion from Air Force and Navy accounts to fill funding gaps at the battlefront, Mr. Gates said, adding that more raids of military accounts are likely.
"If we pulled out all the stops, used everything possible available to us, we could probably fund the war into July," he said. "But I would tell you the impact on the Department of Defense, in terms of disruption and canceled contracts and programs, would be huge if we had to do that." The war funds are caught in a standoff between congressional Democrats bent on reining in the unpopular war and Mr. Bush, who demands a bill with no strings attached that constrict the war effort.
The White House yesterday promised to veto the fund-rationing bill, as the president did last week to a $124 billion bill because it included timetables to start a troop withdrawal as soon as July.
White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that the House bill "contains elements of the bill the president vetoed already and if it were to come to his desk, it would be vetoed." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the president had "once again chosen confrontation over cooperation." "The president refuses to listen to the American people who want this war to end," she said. "Instead, what they're getting from the president is further escalation of the war." It is doubtful that Democrats could muster the two-thirds majority vote needed to override a veto.
The measure also will have to merge with a Senate bill expected to contain softer restrictions.
The House bill would release $30 billion to fund the war until July 31. Mr.
Bush would have to report on progress made in Iraq by July 13 before Congress votes whether to dole out $50 billion more to keep the troops fighting until Sept. 30, according to the bill.
The plan has been roundly criticized by Republicans.
"Enough is enough. It is time to get a clean bill to the president's desk and really support our troops," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said as he received a petition signed by 2,700 current and former service members in support of continuing the war in Iraq.
"The consequences of failure are too ominous to even comprehend," the Ohio Republican said. "If we don't take on the terrorists and we are not willing to take on the terrorists in Iraq, where do we draw the line and when do we stand up to protect the safety and interests of the American people?" Also yesterday, it was disclosed that 11 more-liberal House Republicans had met unannounced with the president and top aides at the White House on Tuesday.
Several participants described a blunt discussion in which lawmakers told the president that the war was unsustainable without public support and was having a corrosive effect on Republican political fortunes.
Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said he told the president that many of his constituents are "impatient, and in some cases have a sense of futility" about the war.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia said he presented recent polling data from his Northern Virginia district showing Mr. Bush's unfavorability ratings exceeded his approval ratings.
"We asked them what's Plan B. We let them know that the status quo is not acceptable," he said.
Mr. Davis told reporters that the president responded that if he began discussing a new strategy, the current one would never have a chance to succeed.
At the committee hearing, Mr. Gates said House Democrats' plan to ration spending would not fix the shortfalls that the Pentagon faces.
"I essentially have 10,000 faucets all running money, and some of them run at one rate, some of them run at another, and they all draw on one big pool of money behind them," he said. "Turning them on and off with precision and on a day-to-day basis, or even a month-to-month basis, gets very difficult." Defense contracts would be disrupted and adversely affect military readiness and efforts to replace worn out weapons and equipment, Mr. Gates said, noting that it would add costs to existing contracts.
He also warned the lawmakers that a vote to cut funding in July would force him to "shut down significant elements of the Department of Defense in August and September because I wouldn't have the money to pay salaries." Asked when U.S. forces can be withdrawn, Mr. Gates said Army Gen. David H.
Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will evaluate the situation in September and recommend whether troop levels can be reduced.
U.S. troops could safely begin to withdraw once violence is reduced to a level where the Iraqi government can advance a political reconciliation within the country, he said.
* This article was based in part on wire-service reports.