Bush may be willing to negotiate Iraq pullout, Murtha says
U.S. Rep. John Murtha believes the Bush administration is beginning to show a willingness to negotiate with Congress an end to the war in Iraq.
The Johnstown Democrat said Thursday that Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, Bush's "war czar" for Iraq and Afghanistan, called him Wednesday after Murtha returned from a four-day tour of Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Belgium. Congressional leaders want to meet with Bush to discuss a plan for getting out of Iraq.
"In talking to General Lute, I got the impression that this is something that we might finally get to," Murtha said during a video conference from his Johnstown office.
President Bush is pressing Congress to approve at least $50 billion of the $200 billion the Pentagon estimates it needs to continue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through September.
Murtha, chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and a critic of the Iraq war, helped shepherd a bill through the House that would give the Defense Department the $50 billion, but require it to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by December 2008. The Senate hasn't passed any version of the bill.
Congressional leaders are willing to bend on that deadline if they can get a plan for ending the conflict, which is costing the country $14 billion a month, Murtha said.
White House spokesman Alex Conant said the administration hasn't changed its position. Shortly after a meeting with Pentagon officials yesterday, Bush repeated his demand for the money with no strings attached.
"Let us tell our men and women in uniform that we will give them what they need to succeed in their missions, without strings and without delay," Bush said. "I ask Congress to provide this essential funding to our troops before the members leave on their Christmas vacation."
Murtha said several soldiers in Iraq told him they appreciate his efforts to bring the conflict to an end. While morale is high and soldiers want to finish the job, they and their families are becoming burned out by the more frequent and increasingly longer deployments, he said.
"We're paying a heavy price," he said.
Murtha said one reason Democratic leaders are willing to bend on the 2008 deadline is because Pentagon officials have told them it would take at least two years to ferry all the military equipment to the United States.
Murtha said he saw signs of progress and continuing chaos during his one day in Iraq. A hospital he visited had been hit by a mortar attack the day before, but more parts of the country are peaceful than before, and Iraqi troops in the Al Anbar province are rooting out the remnants of al-Qaida in their area, he said.
When Murtha began criticizing the administration's war effort in 2004, he said Bush went into Iraq with too few troops. The administration increased the military presence by about 30,000 this year.
Murtha said that "surge" of troops is working, but it only underscores how poor planning from the Bush administration has hamstrung the war effort. Other examples include the slow response to protecting troops from roadside bombs and a shortage of the helicopters needed to transport troops.
"We don't have heavy-lift helicopters, so we have to lease these helicopters from Russia," Murtha said.
A Pentagon official couldn't be reached to confirm the leasing of Russian helicopters.
Murtha said he couldn't predict what version of the war funding bill, if any, would pass Congress before members leave for Christmas. He declined to predict whether Congress would pass any of the other funding bills that have languished while Democrats fight with the White House.
The congressman yelled when asked if it was realistic for Democratic leaders to expect the Bush administration to predict when Iraq would be stable enough for U.S. troops to withdraw.
"Well, we've been there six years, and we've heard an awful lot of rhetoric about the whole thing," Murtha said. "What I'm saying is we need a goal. We don't have a goal. We don't have a plan, for heaven's sakes."