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October 7, 2005
Notes from the Pentagon

Poll watching
Army Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S commander in the Middle East, talking about polls that show Americans' support for Iraq war is slipping:

"Do we have public support? I can't answer that. I know, I read the polls, and I worry about it. But when I go out and I talk to our troops and our commanders in the field, I don't get the same sense of despair that I get here in Washington."

Hear me now?
This statistic from the State Department: "There are a total of 3,592,723 cell phone subscribers in Iraq. Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were no cell phone subscribers."

Creeping coup
The Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington has sent out a warning: Marxist politician Daniel Ortega, who was ousted by voters 15 years ago, is on the verge of taking control in Managua.

The message says Mr. Ortega's Sandinistas have joined forces with other political parties to control the legislature and the courts. It predicts a string of phony indictments against President Enrique Bolanos' Cabinet members and then maybe charges against Mr. Bolanos himself.

Mr. Ortega is an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who in turn has formed close relations with Fidel Castro of Cuba. Mr. Chavez has reached out to the hard-line Islamic regime in Iran and supports the deadly insurgency in Iraq.

The embassy openly criticizes the Bush administration. It says intervention in Nicaragua's affairs often "arrives late" to rectify the anti-democratic trend. The embassy's message has an ominous title: "Nicaragua's Creeping Coup."

The message must have been heard at the State Department. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick was in Managua this week meeting with factions and warning about the bad effects of a communist takeover in this hemisphere.

Syria missile threat
Syria is building up its missile forces and is seeking advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Russia, said a specialist on the region.

"The Syrian regime's efforts to upgrade its missile capability threaten U.S., Israeli and Turkish interests," said Lee Kass, an analyst with Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

"With a stronger Syrian missile capability, the Assad regime could launch either a pre-emptive strike or, more likely, feel itself secure enough in its deterrent capability to encourage terrorism without fear of consequence."

Mr. Kass presented details of the Syrian missile program in the current issue of Middle East Quarterly.

The Damascus government is continuing efforts to buy advanced, 174-mile-range Iskander-E missiles from Russia, although an initial sale was blocked by Russian President Vladimir Putin because of concerns the missile could not be countered by Israel. The missile could hit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, as well as U.S. forces in northern Iraq.

Syria also has Scud missiles and, in May, conducted flight tests of Scuds, including a Scud B with a range of up to 185 miles and two Scud Ds with ranges estimated to be up to 435 miles.

The United States has been pressuring Syria to halt cross-border support for Iraq's insurgency. Syrian missiles could be used in a future conflict between the United States and Syria.

Buried treasure
Winslow Wheeler, a former government auditor and Senate budgeteer, now parks at the Center for Defense Information, a left-of-center watchdog of the Pentagon.

He issued a report this week called "Buried Treasures," which questioned claims about the 2006 defense appropriations bill.

As the $440 billion spending bill was debated on the Senate floor, Mr. Wheeler presented charts questioning whether the bill was a decrease compared with the fiscal 2005 budget, as Republicans claim. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30. For example, the bill says procurement was cut by $818 million, but Mr. Wheeler says if you look at the budget's "fine print," there is $447 million not counted.

Mr. Wheeler also invites you to skim various budget pages to find lots of pork and a $3.5 billion slush fund.

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army colonel and frequent military analyst on radio and TV, is touring Kuwait and Iraq, compliments of the Pentagon, to see how things are going firsthand.

After a dinner last night with Army soldiers, Mr. Maginnis reports to us:

"The soldiers expressed frustration with the fact that most of the U.S. news coverage about Iraq is bad, which contradicts their firsthand view. Two of those soldiers have children stationed with combat units in Iraq. These proud parents appreciate the importance of their Kuwait support mission. A lieutenant colonel volunteered that the American people support the troops but probably don't understand our mission, which explains why national support for the war is declining. A sergeant offered that support would increase if more people served and suggested that returning to a draft might help universal understanding."

Marching orders
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, on his first day as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, sent a memo to the Joint Staff telling them what he expects. The Joint Staff duplicates the staffing of military commands around the world. It monitors operations, does collaborative contingency planning, writes reports and advises the chairman.

"The Joint Staff will be an agile, empowered, innovative and results-oriented organization, which supports the chairman in the execution of his duties as the principal military adviser to the president of the United States, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council. The chairman's role is to be a clear and independent voice, providing the best military advice in an apolitical, nonpartisan manner. As a member of the Joint Staff, you will help to shape that advice. It is a sacred charge entrusted to us by the citizens we defend."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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