US Senators challenge rosy portrayal of Iraq


Washington : Senate Democrats and Republicans challenged conclusions drawn by the top US commander that the situation in Iraq is improving, faulting him for failing to provide a timeframe for bringing home most of the US troops.

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Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who sided with Democrats in backing deadlines for American withdrawals, said the achievements touted by General David Petraeus during the troop surge should not be a surprise.

“When you flood a zone with more troops, when you put more troops in Baghdad or Anbar province, you’re going to see some consequence to that, you’re going to see some result,” Hagel said. “So I don’t think that’s particularly news.”

Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that even though violence is down, it is still too high.

“We’re still talking about over 1,000 weekly attacks – 1,000,” Biden said. “And we’re calling that success. Granted it is down from 1,680 or thereabouts – but 1,000 a week.”

Petraeus announced during his first day of congressional testimony Monday that the 30,000-strong troop surge ordered by US President George W. Bush earlier this year can be reversed by next summer.

But Petraeus, as well as the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, refused to predict when the security and political environment in Iraq will allow the return of most of the 130,000 troops that would remain in the country after next summer.

“I think there is enough in the way of positive signs here to justify the course we’re on but, again, I can’t give you any time lines, dates or guarantees,” Crocker said.

Petraeus highlighted the effect the surge has had on containing sectarian killings between Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the progress made in Anbar province and Baghdad, but acknowledged Sunnis still cannot travel safely into some of the capital’s neighbourhood.

“There’s no question but that travel of Sunni Arabs in a number of Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad is still hazardous,” Petraeus said.

Baghdad was the centre of widespread sectarian killings that peaked last year and prompted Bush to send the additional troops.

Petraeus warned Congress of the dangers of pulling US troops out of Iraq prematurely during his second day of lengthy hearings about the unpopular war. His testimony was seen as critical for Bush’s ability to maintain the little support he still has for the war.

Petraeus acknowledged that violence remains at “at troubling levels” but said it was crucial to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq to build on the successes before a too-rapid withdrawal.

“This approach seeks to build on the security improvements and the imperative of transitioning responsibilities to Iraqi institutions and Iraqi forces as quickly as possible, but without rushing to failure,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus said Iraqi security forces were growing more capable. There were 140 Iraqi army and national police battalions, 95 of which were able to take the lead on operations with some support from US and coalition forces.

Biden said he was not convinced the Iraqi government will be able to achieve political reconciliation between Iraq’s rival groups, and pointed to the sharp rise in Iraqi refugees as an indication the security situation remains poor.

“Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, still live every day in deadly fear of each other,” Biden said. “And until their leaders agree on some way to share power peacefully, that fear is not going to go away and Iraq will not find stability.”