Two senior U.S. senators were briefed Sunday by American commanders participating in a military exercise in the Gulf nation of Qatar, and they said the troops appeared ready for a possible attack on Iraq.
Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is the departing Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and committee member, visited Gen. Tommy Franks and his battlefield planners at Qatar's As Sayliyah army base early Sunday morning and received classified briefings on a war exercise, Internal Look.
The exercise in the Qatari desert tests the ability of Franks' top staff to fight a war from a portable headquarters deployed near the front lines. Franks and his staff have been conducting a warm-up session before launching the seven-day computer-assisted war game on Monday. Many speculate it could be a rehearsal for a war against Iraq.
Central Command officials have refused to discuss details of the exercise, but it will not involve actual combat troops.
Biden said the exercise was the most impressive he's seen in 30 years in Congress.
"I have never seen as much coordination, as much use of our technology, I have never seen as much discipline as I've seen in this operation," Biden said. "To the extent that people thought we were prepared for the first Gulf War, as they say where I come from, they ain't see nothin' yet."
He noted, however, that President Bush has not made a decision yet on military action against Iraq.
Jim Wilkinson, a spokesman for Central Command, said the senators were given a tour of the top secret facilities and brought strong bipartisan support.
Bush has threatened military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein if he doesn't comply with U.N. resolutions requiring him to give up weapons of mass destruction. On Saturday, the Iraqi government turned in a report to U.N. weapons inspectors declaring that Iraq has no such weapons, contradicting claims by the United States and Britain that it does.
Biden and Hagel said they had not been briefed on the Iraqi report, but urged Bush not to give up the diplomatic high ground by rushing into a war.
"I think nothing really happens or matters until the inspectors have concluded they have inspected all they want to and have either found or not found something. I'm confident they are likely to find something," Biden said.
The senators arrived in Qatar after a visit with Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, where they said they received assurances the Kurds wanted to be part of a new, democratic government in a post-Saddam Iraq. Hagel said the main Kurdish factions were showing impressive unity and little signs of ethnic divisions.
"They have come together with a united purpose to be part of a post-Saddam government," Hagel said. "They are committed to allowing all people of Iraq to be represented."
The senators next stop will be in Saudi Arabia, where they expect to meet senior government officials to discuss relations with the United States and recent criticisms that money that Saudis have given to charities have ended up in the hands of extremists and terrorists, they said.
"They must address this," Hagel said, adding that the problem endangers U.S.-Saudi relations. "We also have to understand that the Saudis have been strong allies for a long time and they have made many contributions ... but that is no justification for some of the things that we do know have been going on through probably people not paying attention."