Representative Ike Skelton (Democrat, Missouri), who will head the influential House Armed Services Committee, told a Washington press briefing on December 19 there are three things a Congress controlled by Democrats can do to influence Bush's strategy in Iraq.
The first is to cut off funds in order to shorten the war -- something he said Democrats won't do because it would put U.S. forces in danger and abandon the Iraqi people to sectarian violence and insurgency.
A second option, Skelton said, is to enact laws using what he called "limiting language," which could curtail Bush's options in waging the war. By his tone, Skelton seemed to dismiss this as a viable option.
Skelton said a third option -- and the one he intends to pursue as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee -- is to exercise congressional oversight of Bush's conduct of the war.
Oversight wasn't as strong when Congress was controlled by Republicans, Skelton said. But beginning next month, the Democrats will be asking the administration "tough questions" about what it's going to do and what it has already done in Iraq.
"That does influence behavior, that does have a substantial influence on what people do, whether it be within the Defense Department or oversight in some other area," Skelton said. "I think it's a very solid tool that Congress has not been using."
Debating A Surge
There have been calls to significantly increase U.S. forces in Iraq by 30,000 or more, at least temporarily, to cope with the recent escalation violence by insurgents and sectarian groups.
This option has become known as a "surge" in troops.
The White House and the Pentagon are reportedly at odds over this proposal. Bush is said to favor it. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff are reported to oppose it, in part because of the greater burden it would put on forces that they say already are stretched thin by duty in both Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Skelton said today he agrees with the country's military establishment that a surge wouldn't work.
"If that be the case, I don't think it'll change a thing," he said. "It could actually exacerbate the situation even further, and I'm very concerned about an additional burden on the army and Marine Corps. As you know, both the army chief of staff and the Marine Corps commandant have spoken recently about the stretch and the strain on their respective services, and needless to say it's a deep concern of mine."
In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly oppose a surge because they believe more troops would simply provide more targets for insurgents and serve as a way for the insurgency in Iraq to recruit more fighters.
The Pentagon also reportedly has warned that Iraq's sectarian militias would simply become dormant during the surge, then become active again when the extra troops withdraw.
In Skelton's view, it's too late to start thinking about increasing troop levels. He said that before the Iraq war began in March 2003, the Bush administration should have listened to the U.S. Army's chief of staff at the time, General Eric Shinseki, who advised that the invasion force should be made up of several hundred thousand troops.
The general in charge of the war, Tommy Franks, chose instead to use a smaller, more mobile force, and the U.S.-led coalition invaded with around 300,000 troops.
Skelton praised Franks for quickly taking over control of Iraq, but said the force he used wasn't capable of occupying the country afterward.
"You can do initial fighting, as we did, going into that country -- 'lean and mean' -- and I'm really proud of what they did, it was a superb work of military art," Skelton said. "But occupation is something else."
Skelton said he believed too little attention was paid to the burden of occupying Iraq in the political and military vacuum left after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was deposed. He noted the U.S. government began planning for the occupation of Germany in 1942 -- fully three years before the Nazis surrendered to end fighting in the European theater of World War II.
In Skelton's view, the best way to end the war without retreating is to make the Iraqi leadership understand that only they themselves can resolve the country's sectarian differences and protect citizens from the insurgents.
The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.