Murtha in better position to oppose Iraq war policies

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WASHINGTON -- A few days after President Bush announced his plans to send 21,500 extra troops to Iraq, U.S. Rep. John Murtha picked up a copy of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." It was his third time reading the book, a required text in military academies.

Lauren Victoria Burke, ABC News via AP
House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Johnstown, has been in the spotlight this week. On Sunday he discussed President Bush's recent policy changes in Iraq during the taping of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
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Rep. Murtha sat yesterday for an extended interview with Post-Gazette reporter Jerome Sherman. Here are some excerpts:

Iraq and terrorism: A preview of tomorrow's hearing and whether the power of the purse could, or should be used by Congress to influence Presidential policy.

"The Art of War": The book is required reading at the military academy. Rep. Murtha, who is reading it for the third time, talks about some of the lessons he's learned.

Politics: Rep. Murtha talks about how the Democratic party has built its Congressional leadership and how it is helping newly elected Representatives.

Reform: Earmarks and the role of lobbyists are coming under scrutiny. Rep. Murtha talks about which issues are real problems and which are a matter of perception.


"It says you don't go to war unless you're threatened, unless you think you can win, and you make sure you have your troops prepared when they go," Mr. Murtha, a Vietnam War veteran, said yesterday in a half-hour interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The U.S. war in Iraq, he argues, has violated all of those prerequisites, set centuries ago by the ancient Chinese military tactician, even though the president, in his prime-time address to the nation last week, described Iraq as a central front in the wider global campaign against terrorism.

In the months leading up to the November election, Mr. Murtha was one of the nation's most vocal and visible opponents of the war, and he was quick to criticize Mr. Bush's newest proposal for countering the sectarian violence and insurgent attacks that are killing dozens of U.S. soldiers and thousands of Iraq civilians every month.

Now, however, the Johnstown Democrat is in a much stronger position to demand change. His party is in control of Congress, making him the House's highest-ranking member in charge of defense spending.

He says he'll use that power to limit what the administration can spend on Iraq. He also hopes to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, calling it a stain on America's international credibility.

The House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, which Mr. Murtha chairs, will meet today in a closed-door session with military officials to discuss the readiness levels of American forces, particularly units that can deploy quickly in an emergency.

Defense Department officials, in a recent report to Congress, argue that combat commanders have the necessary tools to complete any mission assigned by the president. But Mr. Murtha said he expects to hear dismal figures at today's meeting, largely because of the burden of repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The administration is expected to seek additional money for the war through a major supplemental spending bill. Mr. Murtha hopes to influence Iraq policy by adding restrictions to that bill, including a call for an increase in the strategic reserve at home and limits in spending on the surge in troop levels overseas. Troops already deployed will get what they need, he promised.

"They say I'm trying to recommend micromanaging to the Defense Department. Well, they need to be micromanaged," Mr. Murtha said.

Even if his proposals win support in the House, they will have to survive in the Senate, where Democrats have a slim, one-seat majority. But some Republicans in both houses of Congress have expressed concerns about the president's call for more troops.

Right now, despite widespread reports about Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, he argues that the United States needs to follow another one of Sun Tzu's teachings before it launches new military ventures: "Victory is complete knowledge of the enemy."

Those words are etched across a plaque that hangs in Mr. Murtha's spacious office. A fellow Marine gave it to him in Vietnam, where Mr. Murtha served as an intelligence officer.

He blasted the country's intelligence failures in the Iraq war, both in the search for weapons of mass destruction and efforts to understand the local culture -- a failure that also plagued the U.S. military in Vietnam. "We have to get it right," he said.

In November, Mr. Murtha was overwhelmingly defeated by Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland in the race for House majority leader, but he now sees that as a fortunate turn of events.

"I think the position I'm in is the right position," he said. "This is going to be a historic year, and I'm in exactly the right position to have an influence on what happens, and I won't be diverted by all those other things that a majority leader has to do."

Will the United States still be in Iraq a few years from now?

"I see us out of there," he said. "I think we have to get out. I don't think we can sustain it. I hope we're out by the next election."


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 1-202-488-3479.


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