General Grilled By Congress

Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, right, listens to the testimony of Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, center, and David M. Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, left, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 during the committees hearing on the situation in Iraq. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East on Wednesday pitted his resistance to troop strength changes in Iraq against some of the Senate's most powerful lawmakers.

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee, Republican John McCain charged Gen. John Abizaid with "advocating the status quo" because he isn't seeking more troops for Iraq.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports that after arguing against either a substantial buildup or cutback in U.S. troops, Abizaid made a stunning admission: The U.S. military does not have enough troops for a big buildup even if he wanted one.

"We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect," said Abizaid. "But when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps."

Abizaid also went head to head with Democrats who want a phased pullout, saying timetables would limit commanders' flexibility in passing responsibility to Iraqi forces. He also said putting U.S. withdrawals on a schedule would increase sectarian violence.

In Abizaid's words, the "prudent course ahead is to keep the troop levels about where they are," a sentiment that puts him at odds with resurgent Democrats pressing President Bush to start pulling out of the violence-torn country.

Abizaid spoke as the committee began re-examining U.S. policy in the wake of last week's elections, which gave Democrats control of Congress starting next year and was widely seen as a repudiation of the administration's war policies.

McCain challenged Abizaid on his analysis of the situation and complained that he was advocating no major changes in U.S. policy. McCain, a possible 2008 presidential candidate, has called for adding thousands more U.S. combat troops in Iraq to help fight the insurgency and halt sectarian violence in Baghdad.

"I'm of course disappointed that basically you're advocating the status quo here today, which I think the American people in the last election said that is not an acceptable condition," McCain said.

RAW video McCain challenging Abizaid's stance.
In response, Abizaid said he was not arguing for the status quo. He said the key change that is needed now is to place more U.S. troops inside the Iraqi Army and police units to train and advise these forces in planning and executing missions.

Another possible 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said she saw no evidence that conditions inside Iraq were improving.

"Hope is not a strategy," she said.

Citing administration claims of progress, she said, "The brutal fact is, it is not happening."

But even some Republicans on the Senate panel voiced a measure of frustration at the long and costly war in Iraq.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee chairman, noted that the conflict has lasted as long as World War II, with the Iraqi government still unable to stand on its own and assert authority over security forces.

"How do you explain that in simple terms to the American people?" he asked in his opening statement.

Democrats have been coalescing around a call for beginning a U.S. withdrawal in coming months. In arguing against a timetable for troop withdrawals, Abizaid told the committee that he and other commanders need flexibility in managing U.S. forces and determining how and when to pass on responsibility to Iraqi forces.

"Specific timetables limit that flexibility," Abizaid said.
  • James Klatell

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