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U.S. troops still face `tens of thousands' of Iraqi fighters, Congress told

WASHINGTON—Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress on Thursday that American forces in Iraq still face "several tens of thousands" of fighters who are sufficiently armed and organized to be considered "something close to light infantry."

This is in addition to the 20,000 criminals that Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said were released from Baghdad jails during the war.

"Make no mistake, recent efforts to destabilize Iraq represent the death rattle of a dying regime," Wolfowitz told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The United States and Britain got the United Nations' blessing Thursday to govern the country with the passage of a resolution that lifts economic sanctions against Iraq. The resolution also established a U.N. representative to help with aid and reconstruction, and it banned trade in looted Iraqi archaeological artifacts and other cultural treasures.

The vote in the 15-member Security Council was 14-0. War opponents France, Russia and Germany voted in favor of the resolution. Syria was absent.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush was "very grateful that the world has come together to lift the sanctions on the long-suffering Iraqi people."

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the resolution would bring together the international community to help rebuild Iraq.

"Notwithstanding the disagreement that occurred in the past with respect to this conflict, we are now united to move forward," he said at a news conference in Paris, where he was attending the annual Group of Eight meeting of foreign ministers from select industrialized countries.

In the Senate committee hearing in Washington, Wolfowitz, a leading proponent of the war, defended the Bush administration against complaints from both Republicans and Democrats that the United States was moving too slowly to restore stability to Iraq.

He said unrealistic expectations had arisen from "a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the security problem in Iraq, and, in particular, a failure to appreciate that a regime which has tens of thousands of thugs and war criminals on its payroll does not disappear overnight."

Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the chairman of the committee, told Wolfowitz that "victory is at risk" in Iraq.

"I am concerned that the administration's initial stabilization and reconstruction efforts have been inadequate," he said.

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the committee, said he found "no surprise" in reports that the United States had underestimated the potential for looting and lawlessness in Iraq and didn't have enough troops there to restore order.

In some parts of Iraq, electricity remains out and water is still in short supply. But the biggest problem may be violence. Across Baghdad, rampant gunfire has changed how people live. Many parents keep their children out of school, and women who usually drive around the city have stopped venturing out. Stores and restaurants close early. People avoid driving at night, well before the 11 p.m. curfew.

Biden said the Bush administration needed to "level" with the American people and admit that American forces might have to remain in Iraq for "five, six, seven, eight, 10 years."

Pace told the committee that the Pentagon now had 145,000 troops in Iraq. An additional 18,000 from the 1st Armored Division will arrive soon from Germany and Ft. Riley, Kansas.

Wolfowitz said the administration is fully committed to staying in Iraq long enough to "see out tasks through to completion." This, he said, included meeting humanitarian needs and establishing democracy.

Wolfowitz, who publicly criticized Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, for telling Congress that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" could be needed to stabilize Iraq, deflected Biden's efforts to get him to give his own estimate of how long—and how many—troops would have to stay.

Wolfowitz said U.S. troops had experienced 50 hostile incidents in the previous two weeks, in which one soldier was killed and 17 were hurt.

American forces continue to round up members of a list of 55 former Iraqi leaders whom the United States regards as threats.

The U.S. Central Command said Thursday that Aziz Sajih al Numan, No. 8 on the U.S. military's list of wanted Iraqi leaders, was arrested on Wednesday. He was the Baath Party regional command chairman for west Baghdad and the former governor of Karbala and Najaf.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Ken Moritsugu in Paris and Diego Ibarguen in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paul Wolfowitz

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