Thursday, December 1, 2005

Rep. John P. Murtha is continuing his assault on the Bush administration’s Iraq war policy, asserting this week that the U.S. Army is “broken, worn out” and “living hand to mouth.”

The Pentagon and a senior Republican senator sharply disagreed with his assessment.

Speaking to civic leaders Wednesday in Latrobe, Pa., in his home district, Mr. Murtha also said the Pennsylvania National Guard is stretched so thin that it will take a year before it can send fully equipped units overseas again.

“You cannot win this thing militarily,” Mr. Murtha said later at a press conference. “Most of [U.S. troops] will be out of there in a year if I have my way.”

Mr. Murtha, senior Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, has emerged as one of his party’s most vocal war critics, after voting to authorize force to remove Saddam Hussein. He now says that vote was a mistake and last week called for quick withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq.

His assessment that the Army, in effect, no longer works brought a sharp response from Army headquarters at the Pentagon.

“The Army is not broken,” Col. Joseph Curtin said. “Every day, our soldiers are making tremendous contributions in Iraq, in Afghanistan and more than 120 countries around the world. Retention rates are at an incredibly all-time high, particularly in the active component.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said: “I do take a quite different opinion with regard to his assessment of the Army. … The morale is so high over there, and they are all puzzled by much of the criticism on this side of the ocean.”

He said he recently met privately with 10 battalion commanders who had been in Iraq. “They had the opportunity to gripe all they wanted and they didn’t,” Mr. Warner said. The Army, he added, “is good and strong.”

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has sent a letter to Mr. Murtha, accusing him of misstating the facts during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

On the show, Mr. Murtha repeated a charge leveled by Democrats that President Bush “fired” Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, for testifying to a Senate committee that war planners needed a larger occupation force in Iraq. Gen. Shinseki was criticized by some administration officials for his remark, but he served his full four-year term and had the traditional retirement ceremony at Fort Myer.

“First, you should know that I did not fire Gen. Shinseki, nor did the president, who would have had to do so,” Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Murtha in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “The assertion that I fired him is a myth oft-repeated by the press, but is flat not true. It simply didn’t happen.”

Mr. Rumsfeld also addressed Mr. Murtha’s charge that the defense secretary forced the Iraq troop levels on his generals. “The suggestion that I forced the military to do something they didn’t want to do, or weren’t ready to do is simply not correct. It never happened,” he wrote.

Cindy Abram, Mr. Murtha’s spokeswoman, said the congressman’s comment about the Army being broken “has a lot to do with recruiting goals. They cannot recruit enough people. They don’t have the equipment they need. The equipment is broken down.”

She said Mr. Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam, has been to Iraq five times.

The Army is in the throes of major change. It is transforming its divisions into more numerous, lighter brigades, while it fights two land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

War planners did not predict the fierce insurgency being fought today, and thus did not have the numbers of armored vehicles needed to protect soldiers and Marines. And, the constant fighting means tanks, vehicles and helicopters are wearing out and need constant repairs.

“We’re not going to say there’s no stress on the force,” Col. Curtin said. “There’s wear and tear on equipment. But at the end of the day, we’re combat ready.”

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