The nation’s top military leaders clashed with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy yesterday, challenging his assertion that the Iraq war has descended into a Vietnam-like “quagmire.”
At a high-powered Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent assessment that the insurgency was in its “final throes” seemed to be contradicted by the top general in the region.
The Massachusetts Democrat prompted a show of support for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after the senator again called for his resignation.
“Secretary Rumsfeld, you know we are in serious trouble in Iraq,” Mr. Kennedy said. “This war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged,” Mr. Kennedy added. “And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire. Our troops are dying, and there really is no end in sight.”
Mr. Kennedy then listed what he considered a series of misjudgments, such as underestimating the insurgency and failing to provide enough armor, and then asked, “Isn’t it time for you to resign?”
Mr. Rumsfeld, flanked at the witness table by three four-star generals, rebutted each point.
“I will say that the idea that what’s happening over there is a quagmire is so fundamentally inconsistent with the facts,” he said. “The reality is that they are making political progress without question.”
Army Gen. George Casey then injected himself into the debate.
“As the commander in Iraq, I would like to put myself on the record, Senator Kennedy, as saying that I also agree with the secretary that to represent the situation in Iraq as a quagmire is a misrepresentation of the facts,” Gen. Casey said. “Senator, that is not a quagmire.”
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs chairman, added, “It’s clearly not a quagmire. … The term has been used loosely, and it’s not accurate in my estimation.”
Mr. Rumsfeld’s top commander in the region, Army Gen. John Abizaid, then offered his vote of confidence in the secretary.
“When it comes to toughness and stick-to-itiveness and fighting the enemy the way they need to be fought, I’m standing by the secretary,” he said.
The sharp exchange came on a day when the Bush administration sent its biggest guns to Capitol Hill to defend an Iraq war policy that is losing support among Americans and a smattering of Republicans.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s top Democrat, used the hearing to try to expose a split between the White House and Gen. Abizaid.
Mr. Levin asked whether the general thought the insurgency was in its “last throes,” as Mr. Cheney said in a CNN interview last month.
“In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I’d say it was the same as it was” six months ago, Gen. Abizaid replied.