Murtha cools further on Iraq strategy

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam combat veteran who holds considerable sway in the Democratic caucus on defense policy, is rethinking his position on the war in Iraq.

The influential lawmaker visited U.S. forces in Baghdad and the Anbar province at the end of the August recess, his first trip to Iraq this year, and came back more skeptical about U.S. prospects for success in the troubled country, according to several sources who have heard him speak privately about it.

Murtha made his views known at a meeting two weeks ago of the Iraq Working Group, an ad hoc gathering of about 30 House Democrats organized by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“His conclusion was the U.S. military presence was untenable,” said a Democratic source who attended the meeting. “He said the situation could not be resolved with American military activity. And his conclusion was that America had to withdraw troops after [the Iraqis] finished the constitution. … If we don’t do it, Iraqis will never stand up for themselves.”

The Iraqi people are scheduled to vote on a constitution in a referendum Oct. 15.

As a senior defense appropriator and leading member of the Democratic caucus, Murtha has acted as something of a barometer of mainstream Democratic views on Iraq. At the onset of the war in spring 2003, he was a vocal proponent of action, but by September he began to voice concerns, saying that he regretted accepting the administration’s justifications for going to war.

Later, as the war dragged on and photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib surfaced, Murtha became critical of the administration’s tactics, charging in May 2004 that the conflict was “unwinnable” using the current approach.

At that time, he said, “Today, our forces in Iraq are undermanned, under-resourced, inadequately trained, and poorly supervised. There is a lack of leadership stemming from the very top.” 

As late as this June, when liberal House Democrats began pushing for a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq earlier this summer, Murtha was skeptical and concerned about the effects a withdrawal would have on the insurgency and on stability in Iraq.

In June, too, Murtha invited retired Gen. Anthony Zinni to address a meeting of House Democrats and advise them against calling for a date certain for withdrawal.

Now, however, it appears that Murtha’s views have evolved and he is mulling whether to call for U.S. troops to pull out under a specific timetable.

Asked to discuss his trip to Iraq, Murtha said he would wait to speak about it.

“I’m not ready to talk about it yet,” he said. “I was thinking I would have a press conference after they complete the constitution.”

Another Democratic source with knowledge of Murtha’s views said the Iraq trip had left the lawmaker disappointed with the pace of progress there.

“He didn’t see anything that gave him comfort that we were headed in the right direction,” the source said. “He saw things that were troublesome — the number of incidents of violence, the apparent increase in insurgents, the lack of economic progress, and people unclear about how the political process is going.”

After the Iraq Working Group meeting, several lawmakers began lobbying Murtha to sign on to Joint Resolution 55, a measure co-sponsored by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Ron Paul (R-Texas), Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) that would require the administration to develop a timetable to withdraw troops.

The resolution has 56 co-sponsors. Asked about whether he would sign on to the measure, Murtha replied: “I don’t think so.”

Murtha often prefers to chart his own course on such issues rather than joining existing efforts, sources said.

Many of the same members who have signed on to the joint resolution are also members of the recently formed Out of Iraq Caucus, which favors withdrawing troops from the conflict.

President Bush has rejected calls for an early withdrawal. “America will not leave before the job is done,” he reiterated in June.

Some House Democrats remain confident about the war effort. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), who also traveled to Iraq in August, expressed optimism about the progress being made.

“I was encouraged by what I saw. It seems like the Iraqi troops are coming along,” McIntyre said.