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Casey defends Iraq war effort

WASHINGTON—The U.S. can win in Iraq and American policy there hasn't failed, Gen. George Casey said Thursday in response to a sharp condemnation from Sen. John McCain, who questioned Casey's judgment in his 2 { years as the top American commander in Iraq.

Casey defended his record at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to become the next Army chief of staff. He stood by his recommendation that Baghdad needed fewer extra troops than President Bush had proposed, said calls for a U.S. withdrawal from Baghdad could hurt the new commander's flexibility and denied that the strain of the Iraq war has broken the Army.

McCain, R-Ariz., a potential presidential candidate, said that Casey had called for adding too few troops and failed to prevent an escalation of sectarian violence.

"I question seriously the judgment that was employed and your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq, and we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone is a failed policy," McCain said.

"Senator, I do not agree that we have a failed policy," Casey said. "I believe the president's new strategy will enhance the policy that we have."

Casey defended his decision to call for only two additional American brigades for Baghdad, saying his principle was to not add a single additional soldier or Marine more than needed.

McCain said he was "not certain" that Bush's plan to add five brigades (about 17,500 troops) was enough, but he was sure that "the job cannot be done with just two additional brigades."

Casey didn't criticize Bush's plan. He said that the three brigades it adds above his recommendation would give the new commander more flexibility.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, pressed Casey on why he changed his mind between mid-November, when he said no increase in troops was needed, and December, when he called for an increase of two brigades.

Casey said what changed was that the Iraqi government developed a new plan that called for increased forces.

He also said that political reconciliation among Iraqi factions—including a system of sharing political power and oil revenues—was essential for stability. He argued that Iraqis must take responsibility for security as soon as possible, but added, "They're not quite ready.

"The struggle in Iraq is winnable," Casey said, but it will "take patience and will."

He said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Jan. 6 agreed to target anyone breaking the law, regardless of sect, and "so far the results have been heartening." But he also said that al-Maliki had denied that he'd agreed to any benchmarks and that the Shiite prime minister "leans toward" not wanting the troop increase that Bush ordered.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who supports the troop increase, said that some senators support a timetable for withdrawal from combat duty in Baghdad.

"As the commander, I would resist any type of mandated timetables that would limit my flexibility to deal with the situation on the ground," Casey said.

Casey also rejected the view of critics who say that the Army is broken by strains from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he saw a "splendid Army" in Iraq.

Casey was born in an Army hospital in Japan while his father was serving in the U.S. occupation forces there. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., noted that Casey's father was killed in the line of duty in Vietnam, where he was a two-star general commanding the 1st Infantry Division.

As he began his testimony, Casey thanked his "bride of 36 years"—Sheila, who sat behind him with their two adult sons—"for her courage, grace and support over the last two-and-a-half years."

He said that military families "make tremendous sacrifices on behalf of their loved ones a half a world away," adding, "courage is not reserved for the battlefield."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.