WASHINGTON - Top members of the Bush administration urged Congress Thursday to quickly pass a $91 billion spending bill that includes money to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that despite a surge in sectarian violence in Iraq, the process of creating a stable government is proceeding satisfactorily.
Rumsfeld was pressed to explain the U.S. military's plan to respond in the event that Iraq's sectarian violence grows into a full-fledged civil war.
"The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the - from a security standpoint - have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to," Rumsfeld said.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., repeatedly pressed Rumsfeld to say what U.S. troops would do if civil war broke out, noting that in his own view the country "only narrowly missed descending into all-out civil war" in recent days.
Rumsfeld said the key to avoiding civil war is for Iraq's political leaders to form a government of national unity. He also said that it would be counterproductive to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces, stressing that he's confident the Iraqis realize the enormity of the stakes at this stage of the process.
"They have everything to lose," he said. "If they are not able to put together a government in a relatively short period of time they are facing a very difficult situation for all of the people involved in governance in that country."
Also responding to Byrd's question, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, suggested that Iraq has been moving in the direction of civil war.
"There's no doubt that the sectarian tensions are higher than we've seen, and it is of great concern to all of us," Abizaid said, adding that he was pleased with the professionalism that Iraq's own security forces have demonstrated in responding to the strife.
Abizaid also described the situation in Iraq as "changing in its nature from insurgency toward sectarian violence."
Both Rumsfeld and Rice acknowledged the recent growth in sectarian violence.
"There is a high level of tension in the country, sectarian tension and conflict," Rumsfeld said. But it has not yet become a civil war "by most experts' calculation," he added.
Both Abizaid and Rumsfeld cited progress in the training of Iraqi security forces. Abizaid said more than 100 Iraqi battalions are now conducting counter-insurgency operations, compared with only five in 2004. He did not mention that the number of Iraqi battalions rated as capable of operating without U.S. military assistance had recently dropped from one to zero.
In her opening remarks to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Rice said most Iraqis are convinced that their hopes for a stable and secure nation will succeed despite the persistent insurgency.
"They still face a very determined enemy, an enemy that would like to see that political process halted so that Iraq might devolve into chaos and conflict," she said.
Rice also criticized "a terrible human rights record" in Iran, urging the Congress to approve a proposed $75 million plan to increase U.S. cultural outreach to Iranian citizens. "We do not have a problem with the Iranian people," she said, adding that the problem is with the Iranian government and its nuclear ambitions.
Rumsfeld told the panel he was disappointed that the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday trimmed by $1 billion the Pentagon's request for $5.9 billion to continue training Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
"In my view that is clearly an enormously important thing for our country to be doing," he said.
Rumsfeld said such training is at the heart of a broader Pentagon strategy to build reliable security partners globally.
"When other nations and partners can shoulder greater security burdens around the globe it is far less likely that U.S. troops will be called on at what is always considerably greater cost in both blood and treasure," he said.
Abizaid told the committee that the $5.9 billion is vital to successfully completing the development of Iraqi and Afghan police and military forces.
"In both Afghanistan and Iraq, local security forces take on the brunt of the fighting and the brunt of the casualties," he said.
Rice's opening statement to the committee was interrupted by a man in the audience who stood and shouted, "How many of you have children in this illegal and immoral war? The blood is on your hands and you cannot wash it away." As he was escorted from the room by security officers the man also shouted, "Fire Rumsfeld."
The future of the $91 billion spending bill has been threatened by a move in the House to block a Dubai-owned company from taking control of some U.S. port operations. President Bush has said he would veto the bill if such a proposal was included.
Also appearing at the hearing was Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace. It was the first time those four leaders have appeared together in front of Congress since Rice joined the Cabinet in January 2005.
The emergency spending bill includes about $65 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as about $20 billion for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Additional money would go to the State Department and intelligence agencies for international operations and classified activities.
The Senate is not expected to vote on the bill until sometime in April. The House could vote next week.