WASHINGTON — Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq has failed because it hasn't achieved its primary goal of sparking political reconciliation among that country's rival sectarian groups.

His pessimism was shared by senior Republican John Warner, who said the war is still not going as well as hoped. The two senators spoke at the onset of a hearing on the Pentagon's $588.3 billion budget request for the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.

Testifying were Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"For years, the Iraqi leaders have failed to seize the opportunity our brave troops gave them," Levin said.

"It is long past time that the Iraqi leaders hear a clear simple message: We can't save them from themselves. It's in their hands, not ours, to create a nation by making the political compromises needed to end the conflict," he added.

Levin said that message is "not the language of surrender" but "common sense pragmatism."

Warner, the No. 2 Republican on the panel, said there are signs of progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. "But I think by any fair standard, that level of progress to date has fallen below those expectations we've had as a nation," he said.

The hearing was expected to focus on progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the strain on U.S. forces. Mullen testified that the services are "significantly stressed" by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously trying to stem the tide of violent extremism elsewhere.

"The pace of ongoing operations has prevented our forces from fully training for the full spectrum of operations and impacts our ability to be ready to counter future threats," Mullen said.

Mullen's stern warnings are likely to become welcome political fodder for anti-war Democrats, who want legislation requiring that troops spend more time at home between combat tours. Last year's efforts to pass such a bill failed after intense lobbying by Gates, who says it would do more harm than good and tie the hands of military commanders.

Of the more than half trillion requested by the Pentagon, only $70 billion would go toward war spending, representing a fraction of what the wars likely will cost. Defense officials say the money is expected to last until early 2009, when the next president takes over.

Democrats said they were frustrated that the military's latest budget does not include a full accounting of next year's war costs.

If the current rate of war spending is a guide, the additional request for 2009 is likely to exceed $100 billion.

"While the monetary cost is not the most important part of the debate over Iraq or Afghanistan, it does need to be part of that debate, and the citizens of our nation have a right to know what those costs are projected to be," Levin said.

Gates says a realistic estimate is almost impossible to make, in part because he doesn't know how many troops will be in Iraq this fall. Also uncertain is whether Congress will approve the $102.5 billion still needed in this budget year, he said.

"I can give you a number if you wish. But I can tell you the number would inevitably be wrong," Gates said.

Much of the Pentagon's annual budget request is aimed at expanding the ranks of ground forces and improving their ability to fight. The spending blueprint allots $20.5 billion to boost the size of the Army by 7,000 soldiers, to 532,400, and add 5,000 Marines to expand the Corps to 194,000.

Mullen says adding more troops to the payroll is a necessary step toward easing the strain on a force that cannot sustain the current pace of operations. According to Mullen, Army soldiers should be limited to yearlong combat tours, instead of the current 15-month deployments, and eventually be given two years at home between deployments, instead of just one. Marines should move to 14 months at home following seven-month deployments, he said.

"I am extremely concerned about the toll the current pace of operations is taking on them and on their families, on our equipment and on our ability to respond to crises and contingencies beyond ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

Mullen also said violence in Iraq has "substantially decreased," but that Afghanistan is facing "a growing insurgency, increasing violence and a burgeoning drug trade fueled by widespread poppy cultivation."


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