Thursday, July 27, 2006

Murtha rises as belief in Iraq war slips

Murtha rises as belief in Iraq war slips
By Holly Yeager in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: July 27 2006 03:00 | Last updated: July 27 2006 03:00


John Murtha's journey from backroom Washington operator to leader of the anti-war movement was neither happy nor expected.

But the 74-year-old - who has become a hero to some Democrats and a favourite target for many Republicans - says he has spoken out against the war in Iraq for several reasons.

"I see kids blown apart," Mr Murtha said last week, describing his weekly visits to military hospitals. "I see the morale changing. I see the attitude changing . . . I heard [US soldiers] say they had gotten to hate the Iraqis because they didn't know who the enemy was."

He recognised, from his long experience as the top Democrat on the defence appropriations committee in the House of Representatives, that the high cost of operations in Iraq was eating away at the military's ability to fight other battles, now and in the future. "The army is struggling every day to meet their bills."

Mr Murtha also studied the situation in Iraq and said progress in key areas such as employment, oil production and security was lagging too far behind. "We cannot win this militarily. I decided this over a year ago, but I hesitated to say anything. I waited probably too long."

A former marine and decorated Vietnam veteran, Mr Murtha has close ties to young enlisted men and senior officers and his call for the speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, first made publicly in November, was especially powerful because it was thought to reflect the private beliefs of top generals. He argues that they should be redeployed to other countries in the region, available to return to Iraq if the situation warrants.

Mr Murtha also helped bring to light allegations that US marines murdered 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, a result, he said, of the terrible strain troops were under.

But despite his outspokenness, Democrats remain divided on Iraq. Many are torn between a desire to bring troops home and worries that calls for a prompt withdrawal will subject them to Republican charges that they favour a "cut and run" policy and draw fresh accusations that the party is weak on national security.

Mr Murtha recently began circulating a memo about the costs of the war - "$8bn a month . . . $11m an hour" - and the many other ways that money could be spent. One example: doubling the community police grants programme for $1.4bn (€1.1bn, £750m) a year, the same as the US spends in Iraq in five days.

Mr Murtha voted for the use of force in Iraq in 2002. But he says it is now clear that the US cannot impose stability on Iraq. "To me, the alternative is, let them handle it themselves."

His conservative, rural Pennsylvania roots, military experience and imposing frame have lent credibility to a movement whose previous leader was Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who set up camp outside President George W. Bush's Texas ranch last summer.

Since then, as opposition to the war has increased, his national profile has risen steadily. "Usually I can change things by working behind the scenes," he said, but now he gets stopped in the airport and at Wal-Mart, mostly by people who thank him for speaking out. He was the star attraction at a New Hampshire fundraiser for Democrats at the weekend.

His new stature also encouraged him to announce that he would run for Democrat majority leader, the number two spot in the House leadership, if Democrats take control after the November elections. "I think I can help, because I'm more conservative," Mr Murtha said. "There is an idea that [Democratic] leadership is very liberal and I think I bring some balance."

His critics would find that hard to swallow. When the Center for National Policy, a Washington think-tank, honoured him last week, a handful of protesters stood outside, holding signs that read, "John-Cut and Run-Murtha" and "Honor their Sacrifice: Complete the Mission".

At a campaign stop in Iowa last week, Dick Cheney, the vice-president, sharply criticised Mr Murtha's call for the withdrawal of troops. "That's a bad idea," he said. "Americans and our Iraqi allies need to know that decisions about troop levels will be driven by conditions on the ground and by the judgments of our military commanders, not artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington."

But Mr Murtha is not likely to quieten down. "This is a tough job for me," he said, trying to balance his concerns about the mission with his respect for the troops who are struggling to do their jobs. "I think so much of them. And I see the hurt in their eyes."

Tomorrow: Jim Webb's run for the Senate in Virginia

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