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End of Days?

The Army’s budgetary squeeze raises questions about whether the United States can ‘stay the course’ in Iraq—even if Washington wants to.

Sending a message: U.S. Marines on patrol in western Iraq.
Bob Strong / Reuters
Sending a message: U.S. Marines on patrol in western Iraq.

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Web-Exclusive Commentary
By Michael Hirsh
Updated: 3:06 p.m. ET July 31, 2006

July 31, 2006 - Perhaps the most truthful moment about Iraq came recently when a U.S. official said nothing at all. This occurred when Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker was asked at a Capitol Hill luncheon in mid-July whether the United States was “winning” in Iraq. Several agonizing seconds passed before a grimacing Schoomaker finally replied: “I don’t think we’re losing.” One of the most eloquent pauses in recent memory, it gave voice to the U.S. military's most deep-seated fears not only about Iraq, but about America’s entire strategic position in the Mideast.

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The general’s honesty has not made Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld happy, military officials tell NEWSWEEK. The temperamental Rumsfeld erupted at Schoomaker after the general revealed the Army’s lack of readiness in painful detail to the House Armed Services Committee. "I remain concerned about the serious demands we face," Schoomaker said in asking Congress for $17 billion in an emergency appropriation. The ranking Democrat member of that committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, cited Schoomaker’s blunt honesty in a letter he wrote to President Bush last week. “When I asked General Schoomaker in recent testimony if he was comfortable with the readiness level for the non-deployed units located within the continental United States, he simply answered no,” said Skelton. Equipment like tanks and Humvees are badly worn down after three years in the sand and heat, and the Army is cannibalizing units still based in the United States. It is also asking soldiers to prepare for third overseas deployments in a row, which many fear could trigger an exodus of professionals.

The Army’s budgetary squeeze raises questions about whether the United States can “stay the course” in Iraq even if it wants to. While the world has focused on Lebanon, Iraq has been sliding downhill fast. U.S. officials battling the counterinsurgency who were positive six months ago are now far more skeptical that the center can hold.

The evidence of those fears emerged last week when President Bush announced that 3,700 U.S. troops--the 172nd Stryker Brigade--would be shifted to Baghdad from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The move reflects genuine concern in Washington about the stability of the weak government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki--even whether the secure Green Zone that houses the new Iraqi government and U.S. officials can hold, according to a Pentagon official would speak to the media only if he were not quoted by name. “It’s now the yellow zone, not the Green Zone,” says Andrew Krepinevich, the Washington-based defense expert whose “oil spot” plan for securing Baghdad has now been adopted by the Pentagon. Some experts point to the valedictory act of the late Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi--the bombing of the Shiite Al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February--as the turning point that sent Iraq into out-of-control sectarian violence.

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