Lawmakers back troops but are anxious

Members of both parties admit that war's realities worse then they expected

April 02, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Watching the war unfold in top-secret briefings on Capitol Hill and speaking about it back home, lawmakers are growing anxious about the conflict in Iraq and bracing for difficult days ahead as U.S. forces meet what is anticipated to be their stiffest resistance yet in and around Baghdad.

Few in Congress are openly questioning President Bush or his military planners on the progress of the war. Most Republicans and Democrats have nothing but praise for U.S. troops and their efforts in the Persian Gulf. But as they move from briefings to hearings to debate on the House and Senate floor, members of Congress acknowledge that the realities of armed conflict are worse than some imagined - and this is only Day 14.

"There's a great deal of anxiety and worry, and everybody watching this in real time. All realize now that this is not going to be easy, that there are dangers, that there are Americans at risk," said Sen. George F. Allen, a Virginia Republican and chairman of his party's campaign committee.

Still, Allen said, the American public is overwhelmingly supportive, and lawmakers - at least most of them - are, too.

"We need to show unity, and for the most part, senators are showing that unity. There are a few errant voices here and there, but mostly we're united," Allen said.

Most lawmakers preface any mention of their concerns about the war in Iraq with a hearty statement of support for the armed forces. They also say the conflict is relatively young, and the speed with which American troops have advanced to Baghdad has been impressive.

But some in both parties say they and their constituents were led to believe that the war would be swifter and less messy than it has proved to be.

"People are becoming more aware of the fact that this isn't going to be short or easy. The administration made a point of not speaking about the contingencies, and that kind of set up a scenario in people's minds whereby this would happen quickly and without much resistance," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has been an opponent of the war. "There's been a rude awakening."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said yesterday that the war "is progressing well and according to plan." But he - like many other lawmakers in both parties - said he is bracing for the worst as U.S. troops meet Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

"It is likely that we will have more difficult days ahead, but that is the cost of war and the price of defending freedom and democracy," Frist said.

Lawmakers draw much of what they know about the war from top-secret briefings they receive each morning from senior military, intelligence and foreign policy officials on the status of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Gathered in secure rooms - a sound-proof vault on the Senate side of the Capitol and a bomb- and electronics-swept committee room on the House side - lawmakers are treated to a multimedia report and question session about the conflict.

In a capital saturated with wartime buzz and a nation mesmerized by constant wartime news coverage, the briefings are a reality check for lawmakers who gave their go-ahead for the war nearly six months ago.

"It's a reality. We have to be very conscious, this is tough," said Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee and moderates the daily war-status sessions. "The briefings have been very pragmatic about the uncertainties of war. You've got to anticipate the unknown and the unexpected and the unanticipated."

But the detailed briefings also can raise some members' anxiety level.

"If you don't watch it, you'll get very far up in the weeds and start worrying and fretting about what might happen," said Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican. "Surely we're into the tough part now, and so you get nervous, and you worry about the men and women who are over there."

Some lawmakers suggested the administration had built up their expectations in the days preceding the vote as officials pushed to get the broadest possible support for the war resolution.

"The thing that is surprising me a little bit is they told me at the White House that 80 percent of Saddam Hussein's country hates him," said Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. of Tennessee, one of six Republicans who opposed the measure authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. "What they didn't mention is, apparently, they hate us, too."

Duncan met at the White House with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet a few days before the vote. Among the things he learned was that Hussein's troops and weaponry were depleted to less than half of their capacity during the first Persian Gulf war, Duncan said.

"We are meeting more resistance than I thought we would be," Duncan said. "I really thought, as I think everybody thought, that this was going to be easier than it has been."

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