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John Murtha: Military faces $100 billion shortfall
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Jerome L. Sherman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 24, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania yesterday warned that the nation's armed forces face a $100 billion shortfall in equipment because of the stress of repeated deployments in Iraq.

In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he also said the thousands of new American troops heading to Baghdad to quell the city's violence will confront far more difficult combat conditions -- street fighting, unseen enemies, roadside bombs -- than he did as a soldier serving in Vietnam 40 years ago.

The Johnstown Democrat, speaking just hours before President Bush's State of the Union address, again called for a quick withdrawal, warning of dire consequences for the military if the United States didn't change course.

"Our military equipment inventories are unacceptably low," said Mr. Murtha, the highest ranking House member in control of defense spending. "We must not lose our capability to deter future threats."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, invited Mr. Murtha to speak yesterday because of his expertise on military issues and his high profile as a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policies.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent conservative and possible 2008 Republican presidential candidate, also spoke, predicting that a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would be perceived worldwide as a resounding American defeat.

Since late 2005, Mr. Murtha has been arguing that Iraq's sectarian violence already makes a U.S. military victory impossible and is merely wearing down the country's armed forces. He also has criticized Mr. Bush's decision to send 21,500 extra troops into Iraq, with the majority focused on securing Baghdad.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., asked Mr. Murtha to describe what the new troops will be doing in Iraq, "hour to hour, day to day."

"I believe this is much worse than Vietnam," replied Mr. Murtha, a former Marine intelligence officer who was wounded twice during his tour of duty in Southeast Asia. "You don't have any idea who the enemy is. You're just walking down the street, and somebody pops out. You don't see anybody, and [you] get blown up."

Mr. Murtha said he frequently visits wounded soldiers at military hospitals in the Washington area to listen to their stories.

"The mental anguish that they go through is absolutely unbelievable," he said.

In recent weeks, Mr. Murtha has held several closed meetings of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs. Army and Marine commanders, he said yesterday, have warned him about decreases in the readiness of strategic reserve force -- those units that could respond rapidly in an emergency.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, almost all active combat units were ranked at the highest rate of readiness, but many now face worrisome equipment shortages, Mr. Murtha said. The Air Force and Navy reserves could quickly deploy to any crisis area, but Mr. Murtha said the country lacks the ground troops needed to sustain another long-term military operation.

Defense Department officials, in a recent report to Congress, argued that combat commanders have the necessary tools to complete any mission assigned by the president.

But the president has also voiced support for an increase in the overall size of the military, something Mr. Murtha and Mr. Gingrich echoed yesterday.

Mr. Murtha expressed concerns that repeated and intense combat experiences in Iraq are causing serious mental health problems for soldiers, while long absences from home are a strain on military families.

He outlined his plan for a phased redeployment, starting with the symbolic razing of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where some American troops abused detainees. He also called for U.S. soldiers to abandon the Green Zone and bases in Saddam Hussein's former palaces, arguing that these have become symbols of an American occupation.

He argued that military commanders could orchestrate a safe, quick withdrawal from Iraq, leaving behind a much smaller number of American troops in the region, possibly in Kuwait or Iraq's Kurdish north. Those units could respond quickly to a major crisis.

Mr. Gingrich said a withdrawal could prompt such a crisis.

"When we make that decision, we're going to watch a lot of people get killed," he said. "You'll have Lebanon times 50 in terms of sheer violence."

He warned that the perception of defeat could embolden American enemies or potential enemies, such as a growing military power like China, which has long had a tense relationship with the United States over the future of Taiwan.

Mr. Gingrich expressed support for the president's intentions in Iraq, but he said the U.S. government needs a vast overhaul of its bureaucracy, especially on the intelligence and diplomatic fronts, to succeed in the war on terrorism.

(Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479. )

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