Calling the security situation in Iraq "extremely serious," a senior U.S. official says U.S. forces will provide all the support necessary to help protect members of the interim Iraqi government after the July 1 hand-over of sovereignty.
Predicting that the next six months in Iraq will be "particularly dangerous," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says the safety of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and members of his interim government will depend, for the foreseeable future, on U.S. forces.
"They are going to depend on us, to a considerable degree, for a certain period of time," he said. "We want to, for a lot of reasons, as rapidly as possible, give them their own capacity, especially for close-in protection. There are a lot of reasons why that is a better way to proceed, but we're not going to take any chances until they are fully ready to deal with their own personal security, they will have all the support they need from us."
Mr. Wolfowitz faced the toughest questions from Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, such as Congressman Ike Skelton.
Skelton: Tell us what your measurement is for success, for Americans to say we have succeeded and to bring the troops home, at what point? People ask me this. I have no answer.
Wolfowitz: When it becomes an Iraqi fight, and the Iraqis are prepared to take on the fight, to join their security forces, we are prepared to arm and equip them to do it. I can't tell how long that's going to take, it's dangerous.
Mr. Wolfowitz told lawmakers one mistake the United States made was, in his words, not to provide what he called "funding flexibility" to train and equip Iraqi security forces faster.
Nevertheless, he said Iraqis are at a "point of historic change," with an opportunity to repair damage caused by more than three decades of destructive rule by Saddam Hussein.
Republican committee chairman Duncan Hunter says members of Congress want more clarity about how U.S. forces will respond to expected requests from the interim government for military support after July 1.
"I think it is very important that we have a lock on this process, that we know exactly how we move it and that we don't have American military commanders who feel they are compelled to do certain things because there are Iraqi requests to do it, but rather that they are in fact clearly vetted with our diplomatic leadership, but also that they have a veto in cases where they think American force protection is going to be degraded substantially," he said.
Mr. Wolfowitz acknowledged that Iraqi security forces, at current levels, will be hard pressed to ensure the security of the interim government, but predicts Iraqis will "step up in large numbers" to augment the size of the military.
General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered this blunt assessment of what U.S. and Iraqis are likely to face in coming months.
"We should expect more violence, not less, in the immediate weeks ahead as our enemies understand that the Iraqi people are about to do what our enemies most fear, which is to take control of their own government and start making representative decisions about the future of their own country," he added.
As other officials have in recent testimony to Congress, Mr. Wolfowitz rejected suggestions by some lawmakers that a timetable be set for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, saying this would open the door to more violence.
As part of an expected series of closed door consultations leading up to the July 1 hand-over of sovereignty, President Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with House and Senate leaders.