In testimony to a congressional committee, former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi says the United States and Iraq are at a critical stage of deciding on a measured and responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.  VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Allawi appeared before a House foreign affairs subcommittee that has held hearings on the future of U.S. - Iraq relations, the latest on a possible extension of the U.N. mandate that expires at the end of 2008.

Saying both countries are attempting to construct what he calls a long-term productive strategic relationship, Allawi said it is appropriate to discuss a time frame for withdrawing U.S. forces. "As we think about moving to the next stage of our relationship it is appropriate to discuss a time frame for reduction of U.S. forces.  But at the same time, such reduction must be linked to measure of progress in Iraq and the conditions prevailing in the country," he said.

Allawi describes security gains from the U.S military surge as fragile and possibly not sustainable.  

Calling bilateral negotiations on status of forces and strategic accords deadlocked, he says it is unlikely the two sides will conclude agreements before the end of the year, adding an alternative will have to be found involving the U.N. mandate:

"Extension of [the] U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 is an option but may be unacceptable in Iraq.  A second options is a U.N. Security Council resolution, but under Chapter 6.  This options and its ramifications need to be studied very carefully because we are concerned about the protection of Iraqi assets from claims by international creditors," he said.

Either option, he adds, would provide more time to work out more permanent agreements in a transparent and cooperative manner, but  says the two sides are running against time.

Allawi had this response to a question from Democrat Russ Carnahan who asked what it would take to have Iraq's parliament approve agreements:

CARNAHAN:  What elements do you think need to be included in such an agreement for it to have enough support to pass in the Iraqi parliament?

ALLAWI:  I frankly don't see any basic objection by the various constituencies in the parliament as long as the agreements, the blueprint(s) of the agreement, is discussed in parliament.  And this is unfortunately not happening."

Allawi expressed surprise that U.S.-Iraq draft agreements have not come to Iraq's parliament, saying "you can't expect the Iraqi parliament to approve of something they have not seen."

Where Iraq's military is concerned, Allawi describes training of forces as by and large a secondary issue.   More important, he suggests, are questions of sectarianism, which he describes as a serious problem, along with chain of command, and methods of recruitment.

The former Iraqi prime minister also expressed concern about the integrity and transparency of upcoming Iraqi provincial elections, and national elections in 2009, noting violence and irregularities in 2005.

These are some of the conditions [in Iraq], Allawi says, that should be linked to negotiations on a time frame for drawing down multinational forces in Iraq.

Democrat William Delahunt told Allawi that while the U.S. Congress recognizes responsibility to assist Iraqi refugees living outside the country, lawmakers are nonetheless disappointed with what Delahunt called the minuscule amount the Iraqi government has devoted to the refugee issue.