WASHINGTON – Democratic critics of Bush administration Iraq policy lashed out at the Pentagon Thursday for refusing to publicly release sections of a Joint Chiefs of Staff report giving a detailed assessment of the readiness of Iraqi security forces.
Sen. Carl Levin (search), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he fears "the American people are going to be left out" of discussions about when the United States can bring troops home and turn the wartorn country over to Iraqi security forces.
Levin's broadside came in the wake of a undisclosed memo in which the vice chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace wrote that about half of Iraq's new police battalions are still being established and cannot conduct operations. His assessment came in a seven-page declassified response to a question that Levin raised at a June 29 hearing.
Pace said the other half of the police units and two-thirds of the new army battalions are only "partially capable" of carrying out counterinsurgency missions and need U.S. help.
"Only a small number of Iraqi Security Forces are taking on the insurgents and terrorists by themselves," Pace wrote in the memo. The rest of the report was kept secret.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that a full report was to be provided to Congress by Thursday or Friday and he said that it would not include an estimate of how many U.S. troops are likely to be required in Iraq next year, even though Congress is pressing for that estimate.
"The information we're getting is in large measure from the Iraqi security forces," he said. "It's their information. It's not for us to tell the other side, the enemy, the terrorists, that this Iraqi unit has this capability and that Iraqi unit has this capability." Rumsfeld said it would be "mindless" to publish information about the combat readiness of Iraqi security forces that would reveal their strengths and weaknesses.
Speaking at that Wednesday news conference with Rumsfeld, Pace said the Pentagon's unwillingness to publicly release that information does not mean Congress is kept in the dark.
"We do tell the Congress privately, classified, exactly what these facts are. So there is a dialogue, just not one in the public," he said.
Pace has said repeatedly that it is not possible to know how many U.S. troops will be needed because the size of the force will be determined by conditions, including further progress in containing the insurgency and training the Iraqis.
There are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now, down from a peak of about 160,000 during the January elections.
Levin said that limiting the release of this information to the public was unacceptable.
Joining Levin, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calfornia said Thursday that if Rumsfeld submits merely "a progress report on the war without standards, goals and timetables specified" he will not have satisfied the intent of Congress.
"A meaningful strategy for success must include benchmarks by which the American people can better ask how the war in Iraq is going and when our troops can come home," she said.
In describing the main points of the report to Congress, Rumsfeld highlighted signs of progress as well as problems.
"On the political front, terrorists have failed to derail the political process," he said. "A constitutional referendum remains on schedule for October 15th. And elections for a new assembly are scheduled for December 15th of this year."
He said ordinary Iraqis are growing more confident in their future, and there is progress on the economic and security fronts.
"The report also offers a candid assessment of the challenges that remain for the Iraqi people and for the coalition," he said. "Among them, though they've suffered numerous setbacks, terrorists in Iraq remain effective, adaptable and intent on carrying out attacks against Iraqi civilians and Iraqi officials.
"Extremists continue to try to foment tension, ethnic strife and, indeed, even civil war between Sunnis and Shias, through murder and attacks on religious sites."
He also said Syria and Iran "remain notably unhelpful in assisting Iraq in securing its borders from foreign invaders."