U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, says the United States remains on track to withdraw all of its combat forces by August of next year. Lawmakers on the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked Hill about the schedule and the upsurge in violence in Iraq.
Appearing first before the House panel, Ambassador Hill said bomb attacks in Iraq are an effort to undermine the Iraqi people at a time U.S. forces are gradually withdrawing under a timetable established by President Obama.
"The violence represents an effort to undermine Iraqi authorities, to undermine them at a time when it is widely understood that U.S. forces are beginning a departure. I think what is important is that the Iraqi authorities and the Iraqi people have understood that they cannot let them [i.e., the insurgents] to get away with this," he said.
President Obama has ordered all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by August of next year. And all U.S. forces, including support troops, are to be out by the end of 2011 under a separate agreement that was reached between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration.
But lawmakers as well as American military commanders are concerned by violence in Iraq, particularly about the possibility that tensions between Arabs and Kurds could expand into widespread violence.
"What are the prospects that there will be a serious outbreak of hostilities between Arabs and Kurds? Are growing Kurdish-Arab tensions the biggest threat to Iraqi stability?," he said.
Ambassador Hill said the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, is working with the Baghdad government and the Kurdish regional government on steps to maintain stability in the north, including a proposal for a joint patrol system involving Iraqi government troops, Kurdish forces, and U.S. troops.
Hill said Iran continues to have a "very malevolent relationship" with Iraq, including meddling in Iraq's internal politics and supplying weapons to insurgents. "There is no question that Iran and Iraq should have a longstanding relationship, they are after all neighbors. But I think Iran needs to do a much better job of respecting Iraq's sovereignty and they should start by ceasing to provide weaponry to various extremist groups in Iraq," he said.
Looking ahead to parliamentary elections in Iraq in January, Georgia Democrat David Scott and Ambassador Hill had this exchange about the question of a possible referendum on the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
SCOTT: "Do you foresee any circumstances in which the Iraqi government will ask the U.S. and ask the president of the U.S. to review his scheduled deployment of troops out of Iraq?"
HILL: "I do not."
SCOTT: "Do you see that there may be a problem with Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki putting on the ballot in the upcoming elections a referendum on that precise question?"
HILL: "I think a referendum would be more possible if there were a perception that we were not living up to the security agreement. We are living up to the security agreement."
Ambassador Hill repeated his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying that Iraqis have stood firm against efforts by insurgents to turn back progress.
The panel chairman, Democrat John Kerry, said significant progress has been made since the height of violence in 2006 and 2007, with fewer U.S. fatalities, a weakening of al-Qaida and an apparent lessening of sectarian tensions.
But Kerry and the ranking Republican Richard Lugar voiced concerns about violence and efforts toward political reconciliation.
KERRY: "It is frankly too soon to know whether the rise in violence since American forces withdrew from Iraqi cities in June is an uptick or an upswing. Whether it is a blip or a trend, recent violence has been troubling."
LUGAR: "The political accommodation sought by the U.S. has not come about despite the political space that was created by the surge and other factors. The central government remains weak and ethnic and sectarian divisions remain. It appears that influence and control are achieved by the traditional means, even while the government muddles through day to day operations."
Ambassador Hill also responded to complaints from some House lawmakers that they have not heard sufficient expressions of appreciation from Iraqi leaders and officials for the sacrifices American troops have made in Iraq.
He said he hears from Iraqis and Iraqi leaders everyday who say they appreciate these sacrifices, which as of this week were more than 4,300 dead and some 30,000 wounded.