WASHINGTON -- Retired military officers yesterday bluntly accused Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of bungling the war in Iraq, saying US troops were sent to fight without the best equipment and that critical facts were hidden from the public.
``I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq," retired Major General John R.S. Batiste told a forum conducted by Senate Democrats.
A second military leader, retired Major General Paul Eaton, assessed Rumsfeld as ``incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically."
``Mr. Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making," Eaton added at the forum, held six weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections, in which the war is a central issue.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a member of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed the Democratic-sponsored event as ``an election-year smokescreen aimed at obscuring the Democrats' dismal record on national security."
``Today's stunt may rile up the liberal base, but it won't kill a single terrorist or prevent a single attack," Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said in a statement. He called Rumsfeld an ``excellent secretary of defense."
Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday at the National Press Club that election-season politics may be standing in the way of finding a solution to the insurgency in Iraq.
``My instinct is, once the election is over, there will be a lot more hard thinking about what to do about Iraq and a lot more candid observations about it," Specter said.
The conflict, now in its fourth year, has claimed the lives of more than 2,600 American troops and cost more than $300 billion.
Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, which sponsored yesterday's forum, told reporters last week that he hoped the hearing would shed light on the planning and conduct of the war. He said majority Republicans had failed to conduct hearings on the issue, adding, ``if they won't . . . we will."
Since he spoke, a government-produced national intelligence estimate became public that concluded that the war has helped create a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Along with several members of the Senate Democratic leadership, one Republican, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, participated. ``The American people have a right to know any time that we make a decision to send Americans to die for this country," said Jones, a conservative whose district includes Camp Lejeune Marine base.
It is unusual for retired military officers to criticize the Pentagon while military operations are underway, particularly at a public event.
And Senate Republicans circulated a statement by four retired generals that said they ``do not believe that it is appropriate for active duty, or retired, senior military officers to publicly criticize US civilian leadership during war." The group included retired Generals John Crosby, Thomas McInerny, Burton Moore, and Paul Vallely.
But Batiste, Eaton, and retired Colonel Paul X. Hammes were unsparing in remarks that suggested deep anger at the way the military had been treated. All three served in Iraq, and Batiste also was senior military assistant to Paul Wolfowitz when he was deputy secretary of defense.
Batiste, who commanded the Army's First Infantry Division in Iraq, also blamed Congress for failing to ask ``the tough questions."
He said Rumsfeld at one point threatened to fire the next person who mentioned the need for a postwar plan in Iraq.
Batiste said that if full consideration had been given to the requirements for war, it's likely the United States would have kept its focus on Afghanistan, ``not fueled Islamic fundamentalism across the globe, and not created more enemies than there were insurgents."
Hammes said that not providing the best equipment was a ``serious moral failure on the part of our leadership."
The United States ``did not ask our soldiers to invade France in 1944 with the same armor they trained on in 1941. Why are we asking our soldiers and Marines to use the same armor we found was insufficient in 2003?" he said.
Hammes was responsible for establishing bases for the Iraqi armed forces.
Eaton was responsible for training the Iraqi military and later for rebuilding the Iraqi police force.