WASHINGTON – Slow progress in Iraq is undermining U.S. credibility and emboldening Iran's regional ambitions, says President Bush's nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In written answers to prepared questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Navy Adm. Michael Mullen said those concerns can be eased by successes on the ground in Iraq. While there's been steady progress on that front, there's been only limited headway in achieving reconciliation among Iraq's political factions, according to Mullen.
Resolving this internal conflict among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds "remains the precondition to an Iraq that can govern, defend and sustain itself and be an ally in the War on Terror," Mullen said in answers to the committee's questions obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
"Achieving progress in Iraq and furthering broader U.S. regional interests are inextricably linked," he added. "Slow progress in Iraq is undermining U.S. credibility and weakening efforts to achieve regional objectives."
Asked by the committee what role, if any, he had in the January plan to send as many as 30,000 additional U.S. forces into Iraq, Mullen said he and the other joint chiefs met personally with Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"We had rigorous and thorough discussions and debates," Mullen said. "The president then made his decision, and I am in support of that decision and working to make it succeed."
Mullen said, however, that it's important to see results more than four years into the war. Some 160,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq now, and more than 3,640 Americans have died there.
"A protracted deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq, with no change in the security situation, risks further emboldening Iranian hegemonic ambitions and encourages their continued support to Shia insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan," Mullen wrote.
"Growing coalition successes on the ground in Iraq should mitigate this risk and improve the credibility of our message to create a regional security construct to counter Iranian destabilizing activity," he added.
Now the chief of naval operations, Mullen, 60, was selected to replace Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace as the nation's top military officer. The committee is scheduled to consider Mullen's nomination on Tuesday.
Gates said he decided not to reappoint Pace for a second two-year term to avoid an acrimonious confirmation hearing over how the Bush administration has handled the war in Iraq.
Pace, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs before being appointed chairman, has been involved in all of the key decisions leading to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and the planning for the post-Saddam Hussein era. His term ends Oct. 1.
Mullen's answers reflect the separation Gates wants to achieve. In one of the questions, Mullen was asked by the committee what he considers to be "the most significant mistakes the United States has made to date in Iraq."
Mullen lists seven mistakes, including the May 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi army, which he says was a "potentially valuable asset for security, reconstruction and provision of services to the Iraqi people." Turning the troops loose, Mullen said, provided "a recruiting pool for extremist groups."
The United States also attempted to transition from combat to security operations "with an insufficient force," a subtle reminder of the criticism heaped on former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for allotting too few U.S. forces for that critical phase of the invasion.
"The void left by a disbanded Iraqi army ... has not been filled by the Iraqi security forces, allowing sectarian violence to continue in too many areas."