A U.S. official has faced tough questions from members of Congress about progress in training Iraqi military and police. State Department Iraq Policy Coordinator Richard Jones appeared Wednesday before the Middle East Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives which examined the situation in Iraq.
The hearing took on more significance in the wake of President Bush's speech on Iraq on Tuesday.
The president said the United States will remain in Iraq only as long as it takes to put it firmly on the road to democracy, and enable Iraqis to defend themselves against terrorists and insurgents, but also rejected any timetable for a U.S. pullout.
Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the subcommittee, began by noting the progress achieved already in Iraq, including the election earlier this year and steps under way to draft a constitution.
"Challenges remain, but democracy has taken root. Today the Iraqi people remain engaged in a process that we all hope will result in a unified and democratic Iraq," Ms. Ros-Lehtinen says.
But while many lawmakers agree Iraqis have taken important steps toward democracy, some believe the entire process is more vulnerable to failure because of problems in recruiting and training members of Iraq's new army and police force.
Gary Ackerman is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.
"The insurgency I see is anything but in its last throes," he says. "The level of attacks has been sustained over time, and they are getting deadlier and they are getting more sophisticated. I can only conclude that we are not succeeding against the insurgency, and that our plan for training Iraqi forces and turning the fight over to them is not working."
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have complained that they are not getting a clear picture of how many Iraqi military and police have been trained, and more importantly how capable they are in day-to-day operations.
Pressed on this question, State Department Iraq coordinator Richard Jones gives a figure of over 100 Iraqi battalions, but acknowledges that far fewer than that are actually "functional."
However, he defended the U.S. strategy.
"We have a plan for organizing them into battalions, for training them at ever-increasing levels, for forming those battalions into brigades, and brigades into divisions," Mr. Jones says. "And then the responsibility for securing the country will be distributed among eight or 10 Iraqi divisions and we will begin working with them to transfer responsibilities. There is a schedule, there is a plan."
Congressman Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat, wasn't satisfied with that answer, saying he does not see a clear plan and complained about confusing information from the Bush administration.
"We continue to get conflicting information from the administration, some of which we can't even talk about because it is given to us in classified materials," Mr. Cardoza says. "But I will tell you that the information that we receive often times doesn't [agree] from one administrative agency to another.
In Wednesday's hearing, State Department official Richard Jones also discussed the coming trials of Saddam Hussein and other former officials of his regime.
He says the trials, for which preparations have been detailed and intense, should be a matter of pride for the Iraqi people, and that confirmation of the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime could help to blunt the insurgency in Iraq.