WASHINGTON – Pentagon officials are disputing claims that the Iraq war has spread National Guardsmen too thin to respond to a Kansas tornado after the governor and some Democratic lawmakers complained that the Guard are not equipped to help displaced residents.
Kansas has 88 percent of its state Guard forces available, and 83,000 Guardsmen from neighboring states are also on the ready should the state request their assistance, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday, citing National Guard Bureau statistics.
According to Whitman, the Kansas Guard have available 352 Humvees, 94 cargo trucks, 72 dump trucks, 62 five-ton trucks, 13 medium-haul trucks and trailers and 152 2 1/2-ton trucks, a surplus, he noted.
The Defense Department responded after Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius suggested on Monday that low National Guard equipment and troop levels slowed the emergency response to a devastating F-5 tornado that whipped through the state, killing nine.
"I don't think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower," Sebelius said Monday. "The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."
"The issue for the National Guard is the same wherever you go in the country. Stuff that we would have borrowed is gone," she said.
High-ranking congressional Democrats opposed to the war in Iraq quickly took up her cause.
"In the wake of the tragic tornadoes that ripped through Kansas this past weekend, our National Guard did a fantastic job, and we are grateful for their work. But the toll of the war in Iraq crippled their ability to do the dangerous and heroic jobs they are charged with," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor.
"We cannot expect our first responders to keep America safe if we don't provide them with the equipment to keep them safe," Reid added.
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia issued a statement Monday linking Bush's Iraq policy to storm safety.
"If the White House continues to cling to its failing occupation of Iraq to the detriment of all other priorities in this country, we will only see more stories of unnecessary heartache like those from Greensburg and New Orleans," Byrd said.
Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the Kansas adjutant general, said the Kansas National Guard was equipped at only about 40 percent of its required levels, down from the 60 percent that it had at the start of the war.
Sebelius, a Democrat, said about half of the state's National Guard trucks — which would he used as part of the cleanup effort — are in Iraq. She said she asked the Pentagon in December to replenish lost resources, and also spoke about the issue at great length with President Bush more than a year ago, when they rode together from Topeka to a lecture in Manhattan, Kan.
"What the Defense Department said then and continues to say is that states will get about 90 percent of what they had," Sebelius said. "Meanwhile, it doesn't get any better. I'm at a loss."
But Whitman responded that only a small portion of what is in the Kansas Guard's inventory has been left behind in Iraq. He would not speak to how much of the available equipment may currently be inoperable or under repair because of usage overseas.
Bush plans on visiting the storm-struck area Wednesday. White House press secretary Tony Snow dismissed questions over a difference of opinion between the White House and the Kansas governor over National Guard readiness.
"I think you guys are trying to pick a fight," Snow said Tuesday afternoon, speaking at the afternoon press briefing.
Snow said that FEMA began moving in resources quickly into the region before federal disaster paperwork was solidified. "This is a success story in the sense that people were moving very quickly to get assets there," Snow said.
He also said that White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend on Tuesday spoke with Sebelius, who seemed satisfied with the amount of help she was getting, even after repeated questions.
"And Fran again said, 'Is there anything you need to respond effectively to this disaster?' The governor responded, 'No, we could not have asked for a faster response. [FEMA Administrator] Dave Paulison was terrific yesterday.' ... The governor said, 'We've got to get power and water running. I've got what I need. I've got your number. I won't be shy. We'll call if I need anything,' " Snow said, explaining he was not on the phone call but was repeating notes he'd seen.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican White House hopeful and Iraq war supporter, also strongly defended the Guard force levels in the state, saying local officials have told him the forces are capable of responding to natural disasters at their current equipment and staffing levels.
"That's what really got me, is her saying that," Brownback said of Sebelius. "Everybody there said no, we have the equipment we needed."
Citing a slide provided by the Kansas National Guard that said it "could respond to normal disaster operations," Brownback's office said they are satisfied with the statistics, although some numbers do appear low. For instance, statistics provided by the Kansas National Guard show that through March 30 the Guard had 5 helicopters on hand of the 21 authorized; 15 are deployed.
Brownback aide Josh Carter said National Guard equipment levels often are going to be lower than the levels authorized. He also pointed out that in several of the 14 categories of equipment listed, equipment levels meet or exceed the authorized level. The guard is authorized to have 15 bulldozers, and that many are on hand; while only 33 dump trucks are authorized, 72 are on hand.
"We haven't heard anybody asking for anything else," Carter said.
FOX News' Nick Simeone, Jennifer Griffin and Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.