WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. John Murtha, one of the most outspoken congressional critics of the Iraq war, yesterday said he saw signs of significant military progress during a brief trip to the Middle East last week. But he warned that Iraqis need to play a larger role in providing their own security and the Bush administration must develop an exit strategy.
"I think the 'surge' is working," Mr. Murtha, a Democrat, said in a video conference from his Johnstown office, describing the president's decision to commit nearly 30,000 additional troops at the beginning of the year. "But the thing that has to happen is the Iraqis have to do this themselves. We can't win it for them."
Mr. Murtha has been a strong critic of the White House war policy and has been calling for a troop withdrawal plan.
He said violence has dropped significantly in recent months, with a dramatic decline in civilian deaths. About 711 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead in November, according to statistics compiled by The Associated Press. That figure compares with 2,155 deaths in May.
U.S. forces also have seen a major decline in casualties. The military yesterday reported its 35th death in November, the lowest monthly number since March 2006. More than 120 troops died in May of this year, just as the troop surge was reaching its height.
Mr. Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who chairs the powerful House panel on defense spending, said the latest military successes aren't a surprise. During the war's early stages, he sent a letter to President Bush, warning that the United States needed a much larger ground force to pacify Iraq.
He described the most promising signs of progress as the turnaround in the once-volatile Anbar province, where Sunnis frustrated by the violent excesses of insurgent groups have started working closely with the United States.
Iraqis need to duplicate that success at the national level, but the central government in Baghdad is "dysfunctional," Mr. Murtha said. He spoke of the frustrations expressed by the top American military and civilian commanders in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who have been pushing Iraqi leaders to use the lull in violence to make political progress, especially in relations between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Mr. Murtha also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who told him that Iraqi forces likely would take a much a greater security role in 2008. The Pennsylvania lawmaker said he had heard similar promises from the prime minister before.
"The American people are impatient," Mr. Murtha said. "He's got to do something to move forward."
As a reminder of how contentious the war debate is in Washington, a White House spokeswoman yesterday chastised Congress for failing to provide billions of dollars in emergency spending for Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year.
"They only have six legislative days left in the session. Their focus should be on funding the troops, making sure the intelligence gap remains firmly closed, and by passing a budget, which is something that our country, our democracy, should be able to do," Dana Perino said during a press briefing.
"They complain about Iraq; the Iraqis were able to pass a budget. It's almost completed. Ours is nowhere near completed."
Mr. Murtha said such language is "the kind of stuff that makes it very difficult to come to an agreement because it just alienates people in our party."
He noted that Congress has already approved a $459 billion defense appropriations bill for 2008, and, this month, the House approved $50 billion in temporary spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although Democrats attached a timeline that would pull U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of next year.
The bill has stalled in the Senate, and President Bush has said he would veto it.
Ms. Perino said yesterday that congressional failure to approve an acceptable war funding bill could jeopardize the Pentagon's budget, warning that as many as 100,000 civilian employees may be in danger of losing their jobs in the coming months.
Mr. Murtha said he may be willing to compromise on the timing of a withdrawal if the White House shows some flexibility. He acknowledged that the U.S. military would be unable to handle the logistics of pulling its heavy equipment from Iraq by the end of 2008.
On Tuesday morning, the lawmaker expressed his ideas with the Bush administration's "war czar," Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute.
Mr. Murtha's four day-trip took him to a Thanksgiving dinner with troops in Kuwait. He also made stops in Turkey and NATO headquarters in Belgium. He was joined by his wife, Joyce.
In Kuwait, he met with troops from Pennsylvania. Their morale is good, he said.
"They want to finish the job," he said. "But, on the other hand, they want to get home."
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or 202-488-3479.