The question of the role U.S. military forces in Iraq will play after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government was debated on Capitol Hill Wednesday. In a sometimes contentious congressional hearing, members of Congress pressed U.S. officials on who will be in charge and what role Iraqis will play in contributing to their own security.
In a hearing examining the status of U.S. forces in Iraq after June 30, lawmakers sought a clearer picture of how American soldiers will operate in the months ahead.
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Assistant Secretary of Defense, Peter Rodman, described a partnership between Iraqi and U.S. forces. "Our forces will be there, we will be in command of the multinational force, but I think the imperative is to accelerate or hasten the day when the Iraqi security forces can take on the major responsibility," he said.
Lieutenant General Walter Sharp, with the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, expanded on that statement. "As we move, and that partnership develops in order to be able to have their security forces capable of doing what the Prime Minister has laid out here and the terrorists, the folks who are going against the Iraqi government right now, that are trying to tear this down, destroy it and kill, as that balance grows then the continuing presence of our forces will be analyzed as we go through this," he added.
Under the Transitional Administrative Law, an interim Constitution agreed upon last March, Iraqi forces will fall under a unified command.
But some lawmakers are skeptical asking, to cite one example, how joint security patrols would be undertaken and under whose overall control.
A recent public opinion poll taken in Iraq became a key focus of the hearing. Its findings show many Iraqis remain skeptical about coalition intentions and favor an early departure of foreign troops.
Pointing to the poll, several lawmakers expressed doubts about the reliability of Iraqi police and security forces currently undergoing training.
This exchange was between Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat, and Peter Rodman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs:
RODMAN: "There are 220,000 Iraqis under arms in the police and the army already."
ABERCROMBIE: "And you have got confidence in them?"
RODMAN: "Well, we're training them and equipping them, and they're very brave people, they're taking casualties and most of them are doing well and showing up for work, and as the General is saying, in the south?"
ABERCROMBIE: "Then we won't have to use the U.S. military any longer to carry on those duties once this sovereignty takes place on the 30th, is that correct?"
RODMAN: "No, that's not correct, that is not the intention."
ABERCROMBIE: "Well, then who is going to have the authority?"
Still others believe the Bush administration needs to have a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Here is Texas Democratic Congressman Jim Turner.
"Those on the street, in the Arab world, are not going to perceive that the occupation is ended until the troops have gone," he said. "And I think if we set a date, everything in the Pentagon would be focused on the accomplishment of that date and that objective."
Assistant Secretary Rodman said that doing so would be mistake. "Setting such an unconditional deadline might contribute to the unraveling of the situation, it could undermine the morale of the people that are counting on us," he responded.
In his written testimony, Mr. Rodman noted while the U.N. mandate for the continued presence of a multinational force expires when an elected government takes power, in late 2005 or early 2006, this does not mean coalition troops would automatically withdraw. That would depend on an Iraqi government decision.
He says friends and enemies of a new Iraq need to know that U.S. troops will remain until Iraq is able to defend itself.