U.S. lawmakers have pressed military and defense officials testifying before a congressional committee on the question of how long U.S. forces will be required to support Iraq's military. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where the officials appeared before the House Armed Services Committee.
The recent statement by Iraq's defense minister, Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, that Iraqi forces might be able to take over responsibility for internal security beginning in early 2009, and assume the entire burden only by 2012, was a major focus of Thursday's hearing.
In the second of two hearings this week focusing on the military situation in Iraq and the mission of American forces, Chairman Ike Skelton, a Democrat summed up a question many are asking about progress in Iraq's security forces. "The question now is how do you sustain it? And part of that solution will depend on political progress in Iraq but part will depend on developing an effective non-sectarian Iraqi security force," he said.
Lieutenant General James Dubik, Commanding General of the Multi-national Security Transition Command in Baghdad, described Iraqi military and police forces as proud and committed to the fight.
While predicting a total Iraqi force of 580,000 by the end of 2008, General Dubik did not hesitate to point out where progress continues to lag, such as leadership gaps, and an ongoing dependence on U.S. logistical support. "The truth is that right now they cannot fix, supply, arm or fuel themselves completely enough at this point," he said.
Mark Kimmitt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle Eastern Affairs underscores what he calls the importance in a regional context of longer term U.S. support for Iraq's military, saying U.S. credibility is at stake.
"Our allies and our partners in the region needs us there want us there because they have other threats and other challenges and if they don't believe that they can count on the U.S. to finish the job we started in Iraq, they are going to have serious questions about whether they should be listening to us when we say we're going to stand by you against emergent threats and existing threats in the region," he said.
Kimmitt and General Dubik faced repeated questions, mostly from panel Democrats, about a future Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq's government.
Congressman Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, says the Bush administration must involve Congress in the details of any negotiations. "What I am more concerned about really is just that this new SOFA agreement is not going to be just sort of an open-ended enabler for them not to move and to take more responsibility for their future. My advice to the [Bush] administration would be that if this process goes forward that it be as transparent as possible, and that congress be part of the loop in terms of that discussion. We do not want long term commitments being made that lock in this country for a time period, and to an ally that maybe a lot of people in this country don't feel are really holding up their end."
Kimmitt said U.S. combat forces may not have to be physically stationed in Iraq, but could respond to eventualities from outside the country.
However, Kimmitt avoided a "yes" or "no" answer to a question from Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett, committee chairman Skelton attempted to pin the official down about Iraqi capabilities and the U.S. Support role.
"SKELTON: Let me interrupt. Was that a yes or no to his question?
KIMMETT: Mr. Chairman, without sounding flippant I perhaps would need to have the question asked again.
BARTLETT: If our citizens should conclude that we will need to have forces in Iraq until their [Iraq's] security forces were ready for internal security challenges, and that you indicate was somewhere between late in 2009 and 2012?
KIMMETT: Sir, what I was reflecting was what minister Abdul-Qader himself believes is that range of time in which somewhere in that range he believes it is his independent judgment that the Iraqi security forces could take on the internal security force responsibility."
Ranking panel Republican Jim Saxton stresses that despite progress in terms of numbers of Iraqi military and police forces, lawmakers must be realistic.
"There is a strong temptation to look at these numbers of Iraqi forces and ask why they cannot shoulder the burden of combating insurgents and terrorist within Iraq's borders. Yet we must remember the unique challenges faced by the government of Iraq [and] Iraqi forces themselves," he said.
In separate testimony this week to a House subcommittee, retired General Jack Keane said any premature U.S. withdrawal would set back chances for political progress in Iraq.
"Immediate withdrawal actually caters to their fears and paranoia that they will be left to deal with the extremists themselves. It forces them to do the opposite of what we intended. Instead of political process and progress they will pull back from that," he said.
Retired General Barry McCaffrey said the military situation has changed, as he put it, like night and day, with what he called a re-energized Iraqi army and police, but listed among remaining challenges a largely dysfunctional national government.
In taking reporter's questions Thursday about Iraqi forces and the U.S. role, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said the U.S. intends to have a long-term commitment to and relationship with Iraq, saying the needs of that relationship will be part of the ongoing discussion Washington has with the Iraqi government.