US Congressman John Murtha, influential critic of Iraq war, dies at age 77

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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HARRISBURG, Pa. - Rep. John Murtha, a retired Marine Corps officer who became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress and later an outspoken and influential critic of the Iraq War, died Monday. He was 77.
The Pennsylvania Democrat had been suffering complications from gallbladder surgery. He died at the Virginia Hospital Center, spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said.
Murtha was an officer in the Marine Reserves when he was elected in 1974. Ethical questions often shadowed his congressional service, but he was best known for being among Congress' most hawkish Democrats. He wielded considerable clout for two decades as the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees Pentagon spending.
Murtha voted in 2002 to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq, but his growing frustration over the administration's handling of the war prompted him in November 2005 to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," he said.
Murtha's opposition to the Iraq war rattled Washington, where the tall, gruff-mannered congressman enjoyed bipartisan respect for his work on military issues. On Capitol Hill, Murtha was seen as speaking for those in uniform when it came to military matters.
President Barack Obama called Murtha, who was known in his home state for helping bring money and projects to areas depressed by the decline of the coal and steel industries, "a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years" with a "tough-as-nails" reputation.
William Russell, Murtha's Republican opponent in the 2008 election, who was planning to challenge him again in November, asked in a statement Monday that people pray for the Murtha family and said his campaign would suspend activity for a few days.
"Regardless of your political position, you always knew Jack had an immense love and loyalty to his family and the residents of the 12th Congressional District," Russell said.
Gov. Ed Rendell said Monday that he has not decided when to schedule a special election to replace Murtha. He has 10 days by law; the political parties must come up with their own candidates. The governor said that it would save taxpayer money to hold the election on May 18, the state's planned primary date, but that he might set it sooner in the event of urgent congressional issues.
Unlike the Senate where the Democrats recent loss of a single seat greatly complicated efforts to pass key leglislation, the Democrats hold a healthy majority 256-178 in the house.
Born June 17, 1932, John Patrick Murtha delivered newspapers and worked at a gas station before graduating High School.
Military service was in Murtha's blood. He said his great-grandfather served in the Civil War, his father and three uncles in World War II, and his brothers in the Marine Corps.
He left Washington and Jefferson College in 1952 to join the Marines, where he rose through the ranks to become a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, and later served in the 2nd Marine Division.
Murtha moved back to Johnstown and remained with the Marine Reserves until he volunteered to go to Vietnam. He served as an intelligence officer there from 1966 to 1967 and recieved several military honours.
After his discharge from the Marines, Murtha ran a small business in Johnstown. He went to the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1962 with a degree in economics.
He served in the Pennsylvania House in Harrisburg from 1969 until he was elected to Congress in a special election in 1974. In 1990, he retired from the Marine Reserves as a colonel.
"Ever since I was a young boy, I had two goals in life - I wanted to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and a member of Congress," Murtha wrote in his 2004 book, "From Vietnam to 9/11," referring to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Murtha's criticism of the Iraq war intensified in 2006, when he accused Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" at Haditha, Iraq, after one Marine died and two were wounded by a roadside bomb.
Critics said Murtha unfairly held the Marines responsible before an investigation was concluded and fueled enemy retaliation. He said that the war couldn't be won militarily and that such incidents dimmed the prospect for a political solution.
"This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people," Murtha said. "And we're set back every time something like this happens."
In 2008, the Republican Party used Murtha's words against him in TV ads aired less than a month before the election. The ads cited his criticism of the Haditha incident, as well as his comment about "racist" voting tendencies of many western Pennsylvania residents. Still, Murtha handily won his 18th full term.

Organizations: Marine Corps, Washington and Jefferson College, Democrats Virginia Hospital Center Pentagon University of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania House Republican Party

Geographic location: Iraq, U.S., Vietnam HARRISBURG, Pa. Pennsylvania Capitol Hill Johnstown Parris Island South Carolina Harrisburg

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