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Tuesday, April 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Congress wants answers on Iraq

By Mary Curtius
Los Angeles Times

Sen. Richard Lugar
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WASHINGTON — An increasingly anxious Congress has summoned Bush administration officials to testify this week on their plans for quelling violence in Iraq and handing power over to Iraqis by June 30.

Three congressional committees have scheduled hearings that Republican lawmakers say they hope will produce information they need to explain President Bush's Iraq policy to increasingly restive constituents. Democrats say the hearings will provide a forum for criticizing what they say have been the administration's missteps.

"The country is polarized," said Rep. Jim Leach, R-Ind., who voted against the decision to go to war. "The issue to me is how we proceed from here."

Because Congress is controlled by Republicans who remain loyal to Bush, the hearings are unlikely to produce the sort of dramatic testimony heard at the Sept. 11 commission's hearings earlier this month. But they may force the administration to provide a more detailed picture of its plans in Iraq and bring to its attention outside ideas for sharing the burdens of war and reconstruction.

In two days of hearings beginning today, the House and Senate Armed Services committees will hear from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered the intellectual architect of the war, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which plans three days of hearings starting today, will question an array of former government officials and academic experts on postwar reconstruction efforts. Committee staffers said they have had a hard time, however, getting senior administration officials to appear. Wolfowitz reportedly had agreed to appear before the committee but then declined the invitation, according to a committee source.

Officials are likely to face a barrage of questions about the administration's decision to allow the United Nations to take the lead in selecting an interim Iraqi government; about its plans for quelling a revolt among followers of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; and its strategy for putting down resistance in the so-called Sunni triangle, west of Baghdad.

Sen. Joseph Biden
"There are tens of thousands of patriotic Americans who will go to bed tonight with a pit in their stomach," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a speech Thursday on postwar policy in Iraq. He said these Americans were "torn between their instinct to blindly support our president and a nagging doubt that he does not have a workable plan for either victory or to bring their sons and daughters home safely." The sessions will be Congress' first public hearings on the planned June 30 transition, when the U.S. administration in Iraq is supposed to dissolve and Iraqis are supposed to take over.

An aide to Sen Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the senator scheduled the hearings because the administration had not consulted adequately with Congress. "Congress would like to know what is going on, because there hasn't been any sharing," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Time is running out in terms of the transition. If the administration is not prepared, or does not have the planning in place, these hearings will focus the effort to do that."

An aide to one of the Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee acknowledged that the administration had enjoyed great latitude and little congressional oversight of its policies in Iraq. But the dynamic has changed, he said, because of the Shiite uprising in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala, as well as the ongoing attacks on U.S. contractors and troops by Sunni guerrillas and the kidnappings of foreign nationals.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of the president and the war in Iraq, said lawmakers want to know more about the administration's plans for increasing troop strength and fashioning a response to the violence, he said. "We're going to want the administration to brief us thoroughly now," Hunter said. "This handoff is pretty important, and it is amazing how many people think we are leaving Iraq on June 30."

Few congressional Republicans are willing to express publicly the frustration they speak of privately over the administration's reluctance to consult with Congress on its plans in Iraq. But many share the sentiments of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican and close ally of the president.

"I think it is fair to say, with the continuing news coverage of challenge and tragedy coming out Iraq, people are getting uneasy," Pawlenty said. "Are people anxious about Iraq? The answer is yes."


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