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Skelton pushes for oversight, military readiness
WASHINGTON -- When Rep. Ike Skelton took over as head of the House Armed Services Committee this year, he pledged "oversight, oversight, oversight."
He has kept that promise with an aggressive schedule so far, holding more than 90 hearings and reviving a key panel on defense oversight and investigations that Republicans had disbanded.
The post has also given Skelton, D-Mo., a bigger platform to spread his warning that the Iraq war has stretched U.S. forces so thin, they may be not be ready to face another conflict.
"You're just wearing these troops out," Skelton said in an interview. "If we don't redeploy them in good order, get them back with their families and allow them to retrain themselves and re-equip them, when the next threat comes along, we're not going to be able to handle it as well as we should, and that worries me to death."
But as Skelton and other Democrats have repeatedly failed to garner enough votes to set a deadline for bringing troops home, they have turned increasingly to oversight to influence the Bush administration's Iraq policies.
Skelton's committee has played a key role in that process. In its first major report this summer, the newly reconvened House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations found it could not verify how many of the 346,500 Iraqi military and police personnel are adequately trained to handle security in the country.
Despite the investment of $19 billion to train Iraqi security forces, the widely publicized bipartisan report concluded it would be years before those forces could take control of the country without U.S. help.
"Congressional hearings and investigations can bring to light information that might otherwise be pretty scarce," said John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., think tank.
"The notion that 'I better get my ducks lined up and explain what I'm doing because I'm going to be hauled up on the Hill,' that certainly can help clarify thinking at the Pentagon," Pike said.
Another project for the oversight panel will be examining how U.S. government agencies can better coordinate efforts to help Iraqi provinces rebuild infrastructure and get basic government services up and running.
"I think we have done a good job in oversight and understanding the war in Iraq far better than we did before," Skelton said. "And understanding the complexities of it and how we need to redeploy [U.S. troops] and train [Iraqi] forces."
Skelton's main focus, though, has been his concern about the "readiness" of U.S. troops. The strain of extended troop deployments in Iraq has left forces ill-equipped to respond to other national security threats or unexpected conflict elsewhere in the world, Skelton said.
Over the last 30 years, the United States has been involved in 12 military conflicts, four of them "major" in size, and nearly all unforeseen, Skelton said.
"You don't know what the future holds," Skelton said. "That's why need to keep forces ready and strong and Iraq has just drained them out."