Congressman who led the charge in ’91 hangs back for now

Eleven years ago, Murtha was one of the first President
Bush ( news – web sites)’s chief Democratic supporters
in the effort to win congressional approval for plans
to take on Saddam Hussein ( news – web sites). He was a
member of the president’s inner council, advising Bush
and his aides on congressional strategy. It was a role
that put Murtha at odds with the leaders of his own

Today, the powerful backroom dealmaker finds himself in
an even more politically lonely position: questioning a war-powers resolution that even most Democratic leaders seem reluctant to oppose. ”All of us want to get rid of Saddam,” Murtha says. But he believes that the younger Bush ”went about it the wrong way.”

Bush’s father ”had his coalition built before he came
to Congress,” Murtha says. As a result, most of the
Persian Gulf War ( news – web sites)’s cost was shared
by U.S. allies. Those nations shouldered more than $53
billion of the $61 billion war burden, according to the
White House budget office.

This time, ”it will all be expended by the United
States,” says Murtha, the top-ranking Democrat on the
House panel that funds the Pentagon ( news – web
sites). He says another war with Iraq would cost at
least $50 billion. Other estimates put the price as
high as $200 billion.

Murtha’s concerns are all the more striking given his impeccably hawkish credentials. Murtha, 70, is one of the military’s best friends on Capitol Hill. He’s also one of the few lawmakers who has experienced ground combat firsthand, which is one reason his views command so much respect. Murtha enlisted in the Marines during the Korean War, then volunteered for another two-year stint in Vietnam.

His western Pennsylvania district suffered more
casualties than any other in the Gulf War he supported.
A Greensburg, Pa., reserve unit, assigned to
water-purification duties, was hit by a Scud missile
that killed 28 soldiers.

”One guy lived a block away from me,” Murtha says.
Another casualty he remembers: a young woman who was
called up for duty just as she was about to enroll in
college, the first member of her family to do so.

Murtha says a key reason for questioning a second Iraq
war is strategic. He’s worried that it would cost the
United States not only money and lives, but also
important allies. By moving without international
support, Bush could alienate Arab allies, and ”we
could lose access to the intelligence we need to fight
the war on terrorism.”

As a veteran of wars both legislative and literal,
Murtha is puzzled by all the bellicose talk in
Washington. Fewer than one-third of members of Congress
are veterans; the percentage was more than double that
when Murtha arrived on Capitol Hill 30 years ago. He
says that makes a difference.

”I have found that the guys who haven’t been there are
more likely to vote to go to war,” he says.

Nothing he has seen in intelligence reports has
convinced him that Bush needs to rush through a
resolution, Murtha says. Even so, he has not decided
how he will vote. Although he has doubts about the
president’s plans, Murtha says he’s reluctant to leave
his commander-in-chief isolated in the face of the international community.

”I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but
he has put the country in such a box,” Murtha says.
”He can say, ‘You’ll undercut me if you don’t vote for
this resolution.’ ”

The casualties could be much higher this time,
particularly if there is ”street-by-street” fighting
in Baghdad, Murtha says. But he has no doubts about who
will win: ”We do have adequate military force to pull
this off.”

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