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thedrifter
02-06-08, 08:44 PM
Mullen: U.S. forces significantly stressed
By Anne Flaherty - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Feb 6, 2008 18:41:31 EST

WASHINGTON — The top uniformed military officer on Wednesday described a tired U.S. military force, worn thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and unlikely to come home in large numbers anytime soon.

The assessment comes as President Bush decides whether to continue troop reductions in Iraq — possibly endangering fragile security gains made in recent months — or not, and risk straining ground forces further.

“The well is deep, but it is not infinite,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must get Army deployments down to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired.”

Mullen’s stern warning swiftly became political fodder for anti-war Democrats, who want legislation requiring that troops start coming home from Iraq immediately. Democrats also want legislation that would require soldiers and Marines spend more time at home between combat tours. The Pentagon objects to both proposals, contending it would tie the hands of military commanders.

The leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said Mullen’s testimony “confirms our warning that the war in Iraq has seriously undermined our nation’s military strength and readiness, and therefore our national security.”

“We need a new direction in our Iraq policy, one that will bring our troops home honorably, safely, and soon,” Pelosi added.

Mullen was testifying with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the administration’s half-trillion dollar defense budget for 2009. Bush is asking for $588.3 billion for the Defense Department, only $70 billion of which would go toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war money is expected to last until early 2009, when the next president takes over.

If the current rate of war spending is a guide, the additional request for 2009 is likely to exceed $100 billion, Gates said. But, he added that he has no confidence in that number, in part because he does not know how many troops will be in Iraq this fall. Also uncertain is whether Congress will approve the $102.5 billion still needed in this budget year, he said.

In his testimony, Gates said a long-term agreement being negotiated with Iraq on the presence of U.S. forces will not contain a commitment to defend Baghdad against external threats.

Democrats are expected to oppose any agreement with Iraq that provides such a guarantee, as well as efforts to halt further troop reductions.

“It is long past time that the Iraqi leaders hear a clear simple message: We can’t save them from themselves,” said Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic panel chairman. “It’s in their hands, not ours, to create a nation by making the political compromises needed to end the conflict.”

Last year, Bush ordered five additional Army brigades to Iraq. One of those extra brigades left in December and the other four are due to come out by July, leaving 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops — the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements.

Gen. David Petraeus, the senior commander in Iraq, recently said it would be prudent to “let things settle a bit” before embarking on another round of cuts. After meeting with Petraeus, Bush said he was inclined to agree.

“I said to the general, if you want to slow her down, fine; it’s up to you,” the president said.

Gates would not say whether he agreed with Petraeus. But, he noted, Petraeus won’t have the only word on the matter. Gates said that he planned to weigh in, along with the head of U.S. Central Command and the service chiefs.

“It’s clear that Gen. Petraeus’ views will have a very strong impact on this, but I think the president will need to hear other points of view as well,” Gates said.

Mullen said he did not think that keeping 15 brigades in Iraq would automatically prevent the Army from reducing its 15-month combat tours to 12-month deployments.

Ellie