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Murtha warns Obama on Afghanistan

| Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008

U.S. Rep. John Murtha stands by a controversial remark he made previously that U.S. Marines killed women and children "in cold blood" in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005.

The blunt description changed how American troops engaged Iraqis and improved overall conditions in the war, Murtha, an 18-term Democrat from Johnstown, said today during a wide-ranging interview with Tribune-Review reporters and editors.

"There are all kinds of things that have happened that have made a difference, but one of the big differences is that we are not bullying our way through like we used to," said Murtha, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam combat veteran. "The rules of engagement are clear -- and it's changed. One of the things that has made it better in Iraq is we are no longer just breaking down doors."

"It's my obligation to speak out. I try everything I can to get things done," Murtha said.

A former Marine involved in the Haditha incident has sued Murtha for slander, saying in a federal lawsuit that his reputation was damaged by the congressman's televised comments in May 2006.

Military prosecutors have said 24 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, after one Marine died and two others were wounded by a roadside bomb.

Former Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 24, of Canonsburg, who filed the lawsuit, initially was charged with three counts of premeditated murder but was exonerated after a full investigation and a hearing. He was honorably discharged last year.

Four enlisted Marines, including Sharratt, originally were charged for their roles in the killings, and four officers were charged in connection with the investigation. One officer was acquitted and charges have since been dropped against everyone else except Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, whose case is pending. Wuterich sued Murtha for defamation in 2006. That lawsuit is pending.

In his lawsuit, Sharratt accuses Murtha of saying Marines "overreacted because of the pressure on them and killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

Murtha told the Tribune-Review he doesn't consider that language overly strident, although all the accused but one have been cleared. Officials conducting the investigation and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service "came up with the same conclusion I did," Murtha said.

Murtha faces Republican William T. Russell, a retired Army officer, in the Nov. 4 election. Russell has crticized Murtha for his comments about Haditha.

On another issue, Murtha said he has cautioned Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, if elected, to avoid the same mistakes in Afghanistan that the Soviets made more than 20 years ago.

"I told Obama's people, 'Don't get your feet too far in Afghanistan,'" Murtha said.

Obama has said he wants to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Murtha remembers visiting Afghanistan when small bands of Mujahideen were routing the better-equipped Soviet Army. They're professional soldiers, different from those fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, Murtha said. More troops won't be enough to stabilize the country, he said.

Murtha, who is respected by members of both parties for his defense expertise, energized opponents of the Iraq war three years ago when he called for a U.S. withdrawal from the battlefield.

He said then that it could have been done in six months. Now it will take longer, but it's still the right thing to do, he said.

"We can't solve it for them," Murtha said, noting that Iraqi leaders are calling for the United States to set a withdrawal timetable, and that they haven't asked the United Nations to renew its mandate authorizing the troops' presence. "It's their problem."

Unless he brings up how much the wars are costing, though, those battles aren't on the minds of his constituents, he said. They're more worried about the economy -- and Murtha doesn't have much reassurance to give them.

He voted for the $700 billion bailout package because Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke "scared the hell out of us" when they warned against Congressional inaction. But he remains concerned about the unprecedented legislation.

"I worry we're rewarding the people who screwed things up," Murtha said.

He said he's worried the economy has dragged down people's hopes for the country.

"I see no enthusiasm at all," Murtha said. Ordinary people have "resigned themselves" to tough economic times.

Though it would seem that sentiment should translate into a surge at the polls for Obama, the junior senator from Illinois has a deeper problem in rural areas like the one Murtha represents, the congressman said.

"Obama's got a problem with the race issue in Western Pennsylvania," Murtha said, adding that it could knock up to 4 percentage points off his lead in the polls. He said he asks voters to look beyond Obama's skin color and "listen to what he's saying." Obama would be the first black U.S. president.

At the same time, people in his district don't like McCain, in part because of the attacks on Obama's character it launched in the past few weeks.

"I just see no enthusiasm for either candidate," said Murtha, who represents Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.

Obama maintains a lead of 13.4 percentage points in Pennsylvania, according to an average of polls maintained by RealClearPolitics.

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