U.S. troop levels in Iraq and hopes for a political resolution to the violence in that country dominated the first post-election hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. Committee members reflected voter concerns about the protracted U.S. presence in Iraq.
Armed Services Committee Chairman, Senator John Warner, opened the hearing with a reminder that on November 26th, America's involvement in Iraq will surpass the duration of its struggle in World War Two. He asked the head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, to explain why.
The general replied, "Like in any campaign, there are ups and downs, there are battles that go your way and battles that don't go your way. The period from September to August was a deterioration of the security situation brought about by severe sectarian tensions."
General Abizaid says earlier optimism about reducing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was diminished by the February attack on the Shi’ite Golden Mosque in Samara, by sectarian violence, and the inability of the Iraqi government to establish itself.
Abizaid said more U.S. troops are not needed in Iraq. But, he also cautioned against any reductions, saying U.S. forces are needed to help train, equip and deploy Iraqi forces. This sparked criticism from Republican committee member Senator John McCain.
"Of course, I'm disappointed that basically you're advocating the status quo here today, which I think the American people in the last election said that is not an acceptable condition for the American people," said the senator.
Also testifying was senior State Department advisor Ambassador David Satterfield, who said some Iraqis have turned to armed sectarian militias for security. He said violence associated with such groups threatens to diminish Iraqi national identity.
"This outcome in Iraq is unacceptable,” said the ambassador. “It would undermine U.S. national interests in that country and in the broader region and it would lead to a humanitarian disaster for the Iraqi people."
Asked by Senator Warner about engaging Iraq's neighbors in search of peace, Satterfield said that Syria must disassociate itself from forces of violence and extremism such as Iran and Hezbollah. At the same time, the ambassador did not reject talks with Teheran. "With respect to Iran, we are prepared in principle to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq. The timing of such a direct dialogue is one we still have under review."
Ambassador Satterfield told the committee that the chances of a political resolution in Iraq will be significantly diminished if sectarian violence and the growth of militias are not reduced. And General Abizaid said resolution of the militia problem is ultimately up to the Iraqi forces.