Rising unease in Congress over Iraq war

Lawmakers are using the August recess to calibrate the intensity of public views on the conflict.

Signs this summer are pointing to an increasing unsettledness among Capitol Hill lawmakers – of both parties – over the war in Iraq and other US activities pertaining to the war on terror.

The unease was apparent even before Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a strong backer of US strategy in Iraq, took it on the chin Tuesday in Connecticut's Democratic primary. Important congressional votes related to the war on terror await lawmakers upon their return from their August recess, and many – especially those dismayed by Senator Lieberman's defeat – are using this month to calibrate the intensity of public sentiment on the Iraq conflict.

Before they left town last week, lawmakers questioned Pentagon officials about the Iraq campaign – and heard the civilian leaders offer a more positive assessment of progress than did military leaders reporting on the view from the ground. The Pentagon testimony was most out of sync over how close Iraq is to civil war.

Their words prompted Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia to signal that Congress may need to vote to authorize US troops to fight in a civil war in Iraq.

"The real question is: Will Senator Warner follow through, or will the White House put so much pressure on him that he won't follow through," says Larry Korb, who served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "You can't win a civil war."

Whether Capitol Hill's unease over the course of events in Iraq grows may depend in part on the outcome of the fall congressional elections. "If Democrats get control of one house, they'll be able to get a hold of a lot of issues that are under wraps now and could change the climate even more," Mr. Korb says.

One major issue this fall could be the cost of the war. Senate appropriators had hoped to finish debate over next year's defense appropriations bill before the recess, but Senate majority leader Bill Frist instead opted to try to move a tax-cut package. A month's delay puts that debate closer to fall elections that will decide control of the House and Senate.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the cost of the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global war on terror operations is $437 billion, according to a July 28 report by the Congressional Research Service. By law, the president is also required to estimate "reasonably foreseeable costs for ongoing military operations" for the next 12 months, unless he certifies that for national security reasons such an estimate is impossible.

Democrats are also raising the profile on the domestic effects of the global war on terror. Last week, Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin called on President Bush to unblock a Justice Department investigation into whether lawyers who advised him to authorize warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) were guilty of misconduct.

In an Aug. 1 letter to the White House, they announced a hold on the nomination of Steven Bradbury to be head of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, citing his role in drafting a legal defense of the NSA program. On July 18, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a Senate panel that Mr. Bush personally blocked the probe by denying security clearances to Justice investigators.

"We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision," the senators wrote. "[This] investigation is an important and necessary step to restoring the faith of the American people in their government."

A wild card is whether the 109th Congress will open wide-ranging hearings and debate on the conduct of the Iraq war. Nothing is on the agenda yet, say GOP leadership aides. Twelve top Democrats – including ranking members of the armed services, intelligence, and foreign affairs committees– have called on Bush to start withdrawing US troops from Iraq this year.

"The sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it. If it is not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war," said Gen. John Abizaid, commander of US military operations in the Middle East, at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.

After a closed briefing Aug. 3 with the full Senate, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dampened speculation about a shift in mission. "The Iraqi government needs our support, and that's the purpose of our mission. And we have no reason to believe that that mission will change," he said.

At a hearing earlier that day, Warner said lawmakers will have to examine "what Congress authorized the president to do in the context of a situation if we're faced with all-out civil war, and whether we have to come back to the Congress to get further indication of support."

Critics say Capitol Hill is slow to recognize the scope of Iraq's sectarian violence – and suggest fuller debate is long overdue. "The military is disagreeing publicly with the civilian leadership openly now," says former Vice President Walter Mondale (D), one of many former senators who follow the war debate. Senate committees need "to call in a bipartisan groups of scholars, leaders, and foreign commanders and do with this war what [Arkansas Sen. William] Fulbright did about the Vietnam War."

He adds: "We have to realize that just carrying on is not neutral. ...[A] lot of people, including the national security director of the Iraqi government, say our presence there is helping to increase anger.... We have to look hard at this."

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