WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush's choice to head the military Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday an increase of troops in Iraq is giving commanders the forces needed to improve security there.
"Security is better, not great, but better," said Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, speaking before the Senate Armed Services committee at his nomination hearing.
However, Mullen acknowledged under questioning that, "there does not appear to be much political progress" in Iraq.
"I believe security is critical to providing the government of Iraq the breathing space it needs to work toward political national reconciliation and economic growth, which are themselves critical to a stable Iraq," Mullen said. "Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."
He said morale is still high, but he doesn't take for granted the service of U.S. troops. He said the war has spread forces thin.
"I worry about the toll this pace of operations is taking on them, our equipment and on our ability to respond to other crises and contingencies," he said.
If the United States fails in Iraq, Iran would be a winner, Mullen said. He said there's a strong indication that Iran is supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and indications Iran has fed technology into Iraq and Afghanistan that has led to the deaths of U.S. troops.
He said a combination of factors "makes me concerned about Iran and where they're headed."
In written answers to prepared questions, Mullen earlier said he and other Joint Chiefs met with the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss the plan last January to pour as many as 30,000 more U.S. forces into Iraq
"We had rigorous and thorough discussions and debates" of the troop buildup plan, he said in the written response. "The president then made his decision, and I am in support of that decision and working to make it succeed."
Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, are to report to Congress in September on conditions related to the war strategy. Already, however, lawmakers from both parties have expressed impatience with progress in Iraq. Earlier this week, the chief lawmaking body in Iraq went into recess until September.
Mullen acknowledged that slow progress in Iraq is hurting U.S. credibility and encouraging Iran's regional ambitions.
He said it's important to see results more than four years into the war. Some 160,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, and more than 3,640 Americans have been killed.
"A protracted deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq, with no change in the security situation, risks further emboldening Iranian hegemonic ambitions and encourages their continued support to Shia insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan," Mullen wrote.
Mullen, the chief of naval operations, was chosen to replace Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace as the nation's top military officer. Gates decided not to reappoint Pace for a second two-year term to avoid an acrimonious confirmation hearing over how the Bush administration has handled the war in Iraq.
Pace, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs before being appointed chairman, was involved in all the key decisions leading to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and the planning for the post-Saddam Hussein era. His term ends October 1.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to vote on his nomination before Congress adjourns Friday for its August recess.
Mullen's answers reflect the separation Gates wants to achieve. In one of the pre-hearing questions, Mullen is asked by the committee what he considers to be "the most significant mistakes the United States has made to date in Iraq."
He lists seven mistakes, including the May 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi army, which he says was a "potentially valuable asset for security, reconstruction, and provision of services to the Iraqi people."
Turning the troops loose, Mullen says, provided "a recruiting pool for extremist groups."
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