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Top U.S. general says troops Bush ordered for Iraq aren’t all needed

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WASHINGTON — The outgoing top U.S. general in Iraq diplomatically aired his differences with the commander in chief on Thursday, telling lawmakers that President Bush has ordered thousands more troops into Iraq than needed to tamp down violence in Baghdad.
    Gen. George Casey quickly added he understood how his recently confirmed successor, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, could want the full complement of 21,500 additional troops that Bush has ordered to Iraq. Casey said they could ‘‘either reinforce success, maintain momentum or put more forces in a place where the plans are not working.’’
    As the general spoke at a Senate confirmation hearing into his nomination to become Army chief of staff, the full Senate lurched toward a widely anticipated debate on the administration’s policy, the first since midterm elections in which opposition to the war helped install a new Democratic majority.
    One day after critics of Bush’s revised war strategy merged two competing Senate measures, the White House worked to hold down the number of GOP defections while two liberal Democrats attacked the compromise as too weak.
    ‘‘It is essentially an endorsement of the status quo, an endorsement I simply cannot make in light of the dire circumstances in Iraq and the need for meaningful action now,’’ said Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
    Casey endured occasional sharp criticism as he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
    ‘‘I do not in any way question your honor, your patriotism or your service to our country, I do question some of the decisions and judgments you have made over the past two and a half years as commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq,’’ said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. ‘‘During that time, things have gotten markedly and progressively worse, and the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating.’’
    So far, no senators have announced plans to oppose Casey’s elevation to chief of staff, although McCain, as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said they were undecided how to vote.
    In the peculiar politics surrounding the Iraq War, the three lawmakers are among the strongest critics of the nonbinding legislation. It would criticize the president’s decision to increase troop levels as a way of stabilizing Baghdad nearly four years after Saddam Hussein was forced from power.
    They said they intend to advance an alternative measure setting out the goals that should be met by the Iraqi government, and pledging whatever resources Petraeus requests. ‘‘We’ve come to the conclusion that the Petraeus strategy ... to buy some time for political reconciliation is our best chance for victory,’’ said Graham.
    Critics of the war, including most Senate Democrats and several Republicans, appeared to be coalescing around a revised measure advanced by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and a group of lawmakers of both parties. It says the Senate ‘‘disagrees with the ‘plan’ to augment our forces by 21,500, and urges the president instead to consider all options and alternatives.’’
    Many Democrats had been supporters of a stronger measure, one declaring that Bush’s plan for more troops was ‘‘not in the national interest.’’
    That criticism was jettisoned Wednesday night when the revised measure was unveiled, as Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada maneuvered to pick up Republican votes. Additionally, the new measure says Congress ‘‘should not take any action that will endanger United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops in the field,’’ a provision that Republicans said was designed to outflank Democrats eager to rein in Bush’s policy.
    Several officials said Reid told a closed-door caucus during the day that lawmakers would have an opportunity to vote for binding restrictions on Bush’s war policy in the coming months.
    ‘‘For me it was a reassurance’’ that the Senate’s hands would not be tied to end the war but troops would still be protected, said James Webb, a Virginia Democrat elected last fall as a critic of the war.
    Two veteran liberals, Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and presidential hopeful Joseph Biden, D-Del., were among Democrats who said they were ready to accept the watered-down nonbinding measure as a first step.
    Not so Dodd and Sen. Russell Feingold.
    Feingold, D-Wis., issued a statement saying the measure ‘‘misunderstands the situation in Iraq and shortchanges our national security interests. The resolution rejects redeploying U.S. troops and supports moving a misguided military strategy from one part of Iraq to another.’’
    Two other presidential hopefuls remained silent on their plans. Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York both said they were undecided on whether to support the Warner measure. Both have called for binding legislation to force a change in policy toward Iraq.
    Casey’s comments marked a rarity, a four-star general pulling back the veil on high-level differences expressed in advance of a presidential decision.
    The White House seemed unperturbed. ‘‘What General Casey was talking about is some suggestions he’d made earlier. The president has made his decision, and it does reflect the wisdom of a number of combatant commanders and it does have the assent of General Casey,’’ said presidential spokesman Tony Snow.
    Two Republicans on the committee expressed skepticism, though.
    ‘‘I’m not certain five additional brigades in Baghdad and one more in Anbar province are sufficient to do the job,’’ said McCain. ‘‘I am certain, however, that the job cannot be done with just two additional brigades, as you, General Casey, had advocated.’’
    In response to one question, Casey said that he had asked Bush last year to approve two brigades of additional troops rather than the five that Gen. Petraeus later sought. ‘‘I did not want to bring one more American soldier into Iraq than was necessary to accomplish the mission,’’ he said.
    Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, returned to the issue later, noting that Casey had testified in favor of Bush’s plan. ‘‘Doesn’t that violate your principle, based on your earlier assessment that only two brigades are needed, that you should not send one more American soldier to Iraq than is necessary?’’
    Casey replied: ‘‘Not really, because as I said, in my mind, the other three brigades should be called forward after an assessment has been made of the situation on the ground and whether or not there has been success in the mission in the Baghdad area.’’
    At his own confirmation hearing last month, Petraeus testified that he wanted all 21,500 troops moved ‘‘as rapidly as possible’’ into Iraq. Most would be charged with trying to stabilize Baghdad, while a few thousand would be dispatched to Anbar province in the western part of the country.
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