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Iraqi Offensive Meets With Skepticism in Congress


The debate among Americans about the state of the war in Iraq played out on this week's Sunday television interview programs. Democratic and Republican lawmakers and the head of the CIA offered their views on a radical Iraqi Shi'ite cleric's order for his militia to stop fighting against Iraqi government and coalition forces. Authorities in Iraq say they are lifting Baghdad's around-the-clock curfew. VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington.

After six days of fighting in Basra, Baghdad and other mainly Shi'ite areas of Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr says he is pulling his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets nationwide. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by calling it a step in the right direction.

Here in the United States, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he's skeptical about the move.

"Iran is backing these Shia militias," said Senator Graham. "I don't know how much power al-Sadr has. If he said, 'Stop fighting tomorrow,' I don't know if people would listen. Part of the problem has been that the cease-fire was never fully embraced by the Shia militias, the Mahdi Army in the south. So at the end of the day, Sadr is a minority within the parliament. Politically, he's a minority."

Graham and Democratic Senator Jack Reed, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, appeared on Fox News Sunday. Both have recently returned from their 11th visit to Iraq. Reed says he also doubts whether al-Sadr's order will have a lasting impact. He says it appears to be a political ploy.

"I think, in the long run, this struggle is going to go on," said Senator Reed. "In fact, the problem is, it could really spin out of control, and that you could have widespread and increased fighting and violence over many months, and it could even pull in the other sectarian communities as they try to exploit this fissure between the Shia communities."

But Senator Graham said he believes the Iraqi government's offensive against the militias is necessary, because the militias are directly supported by the Iranian government.

"We must win this fight," he said. "The militias that we're fighting are backed by Iran, so this is an effort by Iran to destabilize Iraq. I hope we can find a political compromise, but the American military power we've put in in the last year has enormously turned things around politically, economically and militarily. The fight in the south needs to come. It is now upon us, and I hope it can be resolved in a way to stabilize Iraq."

Democratic Senator Reed said his Republican colleague was misreading the nature of Iran's involvement in supporting the militias.

"The Iranians have close associations with all the Shia communities, not only Sadr, but also with [Abdul Aziz al-] Hakim," he said. "In fact, just a few weeks ago, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad made a very significant visit and was greeted warmly by Prime Minister Maliki. So the notion that this is a fight by American allies against Iranian-inspired elements is not accurate."

Senator Chuck Hagel, who has often clashed with his fellow Republicans in the White House about their Iraq policy, did so again Sunday. On CNN Late Edition, Hagel disputed President Bush's recent assertion that the "surge" in US troop strength over the past year has brought peace and stability to Iraq.

"If, in fact, the surge has calmed things to a point where the President and others are saying, well, they've done a great service and they've achieved some terrific things, why, then, is the Administration talking about keeping more American troops in Iraq for the remainder of this year than we had before the surge," asked Senator Hagel.

The Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Air Force General Michael Hayden, talked about the Iraqi's offensive in Basra and elsewhere on NBC's Meet the Press. He said Prime Minister al-Maliki was making a "difficult political decision."

"I guess one would say that success is not guaranteed, but when I talked to my analysts on Friday afternoon, they said that based on this effort, they expect the situation in Iraq to be better at the end of what's going on now than it was at the beginning," said Michael Hayden.

The CIA chief told program host Tim Russert about 70 percent of Basra had been controlled by militias, armed gangs and criminal elements, and government control needed to be restored.

"You just can't have the second major city in the country- economically, the most important city in the country -beyond the control of the government," he said. "And so, although there's a certain sense of disappointment in the fact that violence is increasing, we knew we couldn't get to where we had to be for a modern, democratic Iraqi state without going through this."

General Hayden said the Iraqi government may not have enough combat power to fully gain control of all areas from the militias, and may need Coalition help. He expects the process to take years.