WASHINGTON - When a suicide bomber struck yesterday morning outside the U.S. base at Bagram, Afghanistan, it came as no shock to Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.), who had just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Military commanders in Afghanistan told the Iraq war veteran from Bucks County that they desperately needed more troops to deal with a resurgent Taliban.
In Iraq, frustrated troops and senior officers said that the situation recalled the movie Groundhog Day - "the same thing happening over and over again as the Iraqi government provides little help," Murphy said.
Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq overseeing a 21,500-troop buildup in American forces, "is going to have an impossible mission unless the Iraqis come off the sidelines and stand up for their own country," Murphy said in an interview yesterday.
Murphy and other House Democrats were scheduled to have an initial meeting last night to work out differences over using a war-spending bill to limit deployments to Iraq.
After proposing restrictions on the $93.4 billion Iraq-spending request tied to readiness standards, Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.) was harshly criticized by Republicans and some Democrats who worry that Congress could be perceived as undermining U.S. troops.
Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), a retired Navy admiral who represents Delaware County, has proposed a timetable for the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq, and has said Murtha's approach may cause "unintended, unknown ramifications, when you get on the operational level."
Murphy, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition of Democrats, also opposes using the supplemental Iraq budget to restrict administration war options and has offered his own legislation on the redeployment of U.S. troops within 12 months.
"I want to make sure you can't get money from a different pot, shift it over," Murphy said. "Strategically, I want to make sure we don't get an end around by the White House."
In the Senate, Democrats yesterday continued to work on drafting a resolution that would repeal the 2002 authorization that paved the way for military action in Iraq.
A joint resolution being drafted by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan, who chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, respectively, would require the administration to begin a transition of U.S. forces in Iraq to a reduced mission focusing on border security and terrorism and not sectarian violence.
At the same time, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called for more hearings on the constitutional authority of Congress to place restrictions on President Bush's war powers.
"I don't think we've had much sensible debate on the Iraq issue," Specter said in an interview. "It's been vacuous."
The competing proposals and the different approaches being taken in the House and the Senate reflect divisions among Democrats about how far to go in attempting to impose an end game on the conflict in Iraq.
Murphy returned Monday from a seven-day trip that included a one-day stop in Afghanistan and two days in Iraq with a six-member congressional delegation that included Democratic Rep. Christopher P. Carney of the 10th District in northeastern Pennsylvania.
After meeting with senior commanders in Afghanistan, Murphy said, "they feel like the redheaded stepchild" - forgotten and ignored - as the original battleground in the war against terrorism.
U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the 35,000-member NATO force in Afghanistan, told Murphy that he needed at least 1,500 more U.S. troops.
"We're not taking a thoughtful approach to Afghanistan," Murphy said. "We're taking our eye off the ball. We need to refocus our efforts there."
Military officials told Murphy that the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan was increasingly porous and that the Taliban was preparing for a spring offensive.
"I was shocked by their candor," Murphy said.
He said the four-year campaign was diverting important resources from the overall antiterrorism effort and had left U.S. troops and commanders frustrated that they were being asked to do too much.
The Iraqis have failed to stop sabotage of fuel lines that could double oil exports, Murphy was told. Electrical service could be dramatically increased if Iraqi police stopped insurgents from pulling down power poles using chains and pickup trucks, he said.
Murphy said that everywhere he went, officials told him the United States should be engaged in talks with Iran about a political solution in Iraq.
He said he heard "nothing at all" to support the notion that troop morale was adversely affected by attempts in Congress to wind down the war.
"They are focused on the mission," he said. "American troops on the ground want to win. The question is the best way to do it."