The Bush administration’s escalation of the Iraq War drew a harsh reaction Thursday with Congress, protests and public opinion polls all showing growing signs of opposition to sending more troops to Iraq. A new AP-Ipsos poll shows public opposition to a troop surge has reached 71 percent — 10 percent more than from earlier this week. The president’s overall job approval rating is hovering around its lowest mark at just 32 percent. Protests were held in several cities, including New York, San Francisco and Boston, in what peace activists called a prelude to a major rally in Washington, D.C., two weeks from Saturday.
Top administration officials were sent to Capitol Hill in a push to build political support for its escalation of the war. Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected calls to set a timetable on the new deployment of more than 21,000 troops.
Defense Sec. Robert Gates: "I don’t think anybody has a definite idea of how long a surge would last. I think for most of us in our minds we’re thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years. We will know in a couple of months whether that strategy will bear fruit."
Meanwhile in the Senate, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Foreign Relations Committee the Iraqi government is living on "borrowed time." She also declined to call the troop surge an escalation but rather an "augmentation." Rice heard criticism from both sides of the aisle. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska had harsh words for the administration’s plan.
Sen. Chuck Hagel: "So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous. As a matter of fact, I have to say, Madam Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam — if it’s carried out. I will resist it."
At least 15 Republican lawmakers have now come out against sending more troops to Iraq. Across the aisle, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold called the troop increase "quite possibly the greatest foreign policy mistake in the history of our nation." Democratic Senator Joseph Biden also spoke.
Sen. Joseph Biden: "I fear that what the president has proposed is more likely to make things worse. We hoped and prayed we would hear of a plan that would have two features: to begin to bring American forces home and a reasonable prospect of leaving behind a stable Iraq. Instead, we heard a plan to escalate the war, not only in Iraq but possibly into Iran and Syria as well. I believe the president’s strategy is not a solution, Secretary Rice. I believe it’s a tragic mistake."
Republicans say the president risks a major defeat if House Democrats proceed with a nonbinding resolution on the president’s troop surge. Republican Congressmember Ray LaHood of Illinois said: "The White House will have to work 24 hours a day to find people on our side who aren’t going to jump ship."
In Iraq, the Shiite-led government gave what The New York Times calls a "grudging endorsement" of the plan to send more troops. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to attend a news conference and did not give any public comment.
Meanwhile, President Bush traveled to the military base at Fort Benning, Georgia, Thursday in what critics called a photo-opportunity visit.
President Bush: "Imagine what would happen if these extremists who hate America gained control of energy reserves. You can bet they would use those reserves as blackmail in order to achieve their objectives. If we were to leave Iraq, if we were to fail, Iran would be emboldened in terms of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have safe havens in which to launch attacks. People would look back at this moment in history and say, 'What happened to them in America? How come they couldn't see the threats to future generations?’ That is why we must and we will succeed in Iraq."
The Los Angeles Times reports Bush’s military audience gave him a less enthusiastic reception than on previous visits to promote his Iraq policy. Most of the soldiers at Fort Benning have already served in Iraq. The White House and military officials barred the soldiers from speaking to reporters before or after the president’s speech.
In a sign of increasing strain on the military, the Pentagon announced Thursday it’s doing away with a time limit on how long reserve soldiers can serve on active duty. Citizen-soldiers had previously been allowed to serve no more than a cumulative total of 24 months. The new policy will mean reservists can be sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan so long as those 24 months are not consecutive. The Pentagon says in practice it will try to limit mobilizations to 12 months at a time. In an interview with the Associated Press, Pentagon chief of personnel David Chu said the changes are "no big deal." Chu says most reservists implicitly understood their time in active duty would eventually go beyond the previous limit. The announcement came as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he will recommend the U.S. military add another 92,000 troops over the next five years.
In other news, protests and vigils were held around the world Thursday to mark the International Day to Shut Down Guantanamo. In Cuba, the American peace activist Cindy Sheehan led a march of 50 people to the military barrier surrounding the Guantanamo prison. Here in the United States, hundreds of people gathered outside the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. Close to 100 protesters were later arrested inside the courthouse after raising signs with slogans including "Stop Torture" and "Shut Down Guantanamo." Amnesty International organized rallies outside U.S. embassies around the world. In London, more than 400 people dressed in orange jumpsuits like those worn by Guantanamo prisoners. In Madrid, protesters delivered embassy officials a petition calling for Guantanamo’s closure.
Amnesty International member Jerry Saderes: "Many governments don’t want to talk about it because they think that terrorism is more important than civil rights. We are not defending terrorism, we are defending those who are not involved."
Meanwhile at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined the calls to shut down Guantanamo.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "I would say that [on] today’s fifth anniversary of the Guantanamo prison, like my predecessor, I believe that the prison at Guantanamo should be closed.’
Opposition was also heard from Afghanistan, where most Guantanamo prisoners were captured.
Afghan Human Rights Commissioner Ahmad Nader Nadery: "Of course we join all those human rights organizations, mainly the human right high commissioner for human rights in her call for closing the facilities in Guantanamo Bay. We do hope that this happens in relation to the Afghan detainees, that the Afghan detainees to be transferred to the Afghan authority if the decision was made."
In Greece, the U.S. Embassy in Athens came under fire today in what officials are calling an act of terrorism. One room was damaged and several windows shattered when a rocket hit a building near the embassy entrance. The building was empty at the time, and no one was injured.
In Somalia, the Pentagon has acknowledged it failed to hit any of the top al-Qaeda members it claimed to have targeted in Sunday’s airstrike. Military officials now say the attack hit around 10 people "suspected" of terrorist links. The attack was the first known U.S. military action in Somalia in more than a decade. Meanwhile, clashes continue in the capital Mogadishu following the victory of Ethiopian-led forces over the Islamic Courts. At least six people were killed in violence earlier today.
In Nicaragua, the government of newly inaugurated President Daniel Ortega marked its first day in office Thursday by signing on to ALBA — the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas. ALBA was established as a counterweight to U.S.-led trade agreements in Latin America.
Back in the United States, the African-American mayor of a small farming town in New Jersey has been subjected to death threats and other harassment weeks into his first term in office. Charles Tyson is the first black mayor of South Harrison. In an interview with The New York Times, Tyson says he received racist phone calls and had the tires on his car slashed following his election last year. Tyson then received a death threat after taking office on New Year’s Day.
And back on Capitol Hill, the House passed another centerpiece of the Democrats 100-hour agenda Thursday with a vote to lift President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research. The measure passed with a vote of 253 to 174 — not enough for Democrats to override a presidential veto promised by the White House.