The Defense Department underestimated its enemy in the Iraq war, failing to predict how resilient Saddam Hussein and his government would be, the Pentagon's No. 2 civilian said Tuesday.
In a rare admission of prewar miscalculations, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz also said it's impossible to say how long a large American military force will have to stay in Iraq after political power is handed to Iraqis on June 30.
Wolfowitz spoke at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the latest called by lawmakers worried about the Bush administration's handling of the war and reconstruction so far and about its plans for the future.
Answering a question about miscalculations made to date in the year-old campaign, Wolfowitz said: "I would say of all the things that were underestimated, the one that almost no one that I know of predicted ... was to properly estimate the resilience of the regime that had abused this country for 35 years."
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Wolfowitz said that included the failure "to properly estimate that Saddam Hussein would still be out there funding attacks on Americans until he was captured; that one of his principal deputies, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, would still be out there funding operations against us; that they would have hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts in neighboring countries to support those operations"; and that the old intelligence service would keep fighting.
Wolfowitz also said U.S. officials were wrong to impose so severe a policy of de-Baathification, the decision to purge members of Saddam's Baath party from the government. The move threw out of work thousands of teachers, military men and others, many of whom had been required to join the party for employment, and was blamed by some for not only boosting joblessness but helping fuel the insurgency.
The ban on former party members in public sector jobs was eased last month.
Wolfowitz also said that the next year to 18 months will be critical in Iraq because it will take that long to stand up fully trained and equipped Iraqi security forces and to elect a representative government.
Pressed by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., on how long substantial numbers of U.S. troops will have to remain, Wolfowitz said he could not predict.
Occupation forces have signed up some 200,000 Iraqis for police, army, civil defense and other security jobs. Training has been slow, however, insurgent violence is on the rise and Iraqis remain far from capable of securing the country without the 160,000-member U.S.-led occupation forces.
Feingold asked if the current 135,000 Americans will have to stay through 2005.
"We don't know what it'll be. We've had changes, as you know, month by month," Wolfowitz said. "We have several different plans to be able to deal with the different levels that might be required.
"Our current level is higher than we had planned for this time this year."
Officials had expected they'd have only 115,000 troops in Iraq by now but were forced in the spring to extend the tours of some 20,000 Americans because of unexpectedly high violence.
Before the war, some military planners estimated all but 70,000 Americans could have been withdrawn by the end of 2003. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said since that he never thought that number was plausible.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld briefed the House Armed Services panel in private Tuesday on a number of Iraq issues. The panel also was briefed by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated U.S. soldiers' abuse of inmates in an Iraqi prison.
Some House members viewed still-classified photos from the scandal, in which Taguba reported "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" by military forces at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison complex near Baghdad.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., criticized Wolfowitz and Armitage for not knowing precisely how U.S.-run prisons will be handled after the transfer of sovereignty.
Armitage said officials hope to put them under Iraqi control "as rapidly as possible" but said he didn't know how long that meant.
"I would have thought that this government would put some time into this, especially with what we've just been through the last two weeks," Hagel said of the firestorm in the United States and abroad over publicized photos of abuse.
Armitage said U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is working hard to produce a list of 30 people that Iraqis could agree on to serve as president, prime minister, two vice presidents and heads of 26 ministries in the interim government, which would serve until elections are held.
He said he hoped the selection would be done by the end of this month or the first week of June.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee harshly criticized his Senate counterparts Tuesday, accusing them of "basically driving the story" of the Iraq prison abuse and pulling officials out of Iraq to testify.
"I think they have given now probably more publicity to what six people did in the Abu Ghraib prison at 2:30 in the morning than the invasion of Normandy," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said on C-SPAN.