Progress in Iraq is disputedStay may last years, U.S. official asserts
WASHINGTON The United States may have to keep troops in Iraq for years to come despite "enormous progress" in bringing peace to that country, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Tuesday.
Wolfowitz's prediction, coupled with a high-ranking general's warning that "we should expect more violence, not less," in the near future, highlighted a sometimes contentious hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
Wolfowitz, who returned recently from a tour of Iraq, said he had heard military people from the United States and their allies say again and again that the people back home just do not realize how much progress is being achieved in Iraq as it moves toward sovereignty on June 30.
"It's something we heard almost everywhere - from Iraqis, from Americans, from a British general down in Basra," Wolfowitz said. "What doesn't get through in all the reporting on problems is, there's also been enormous progress."
But Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the panel's ranking Democrat, was not persuaded. Conceding that much had been accomplished in Iraq, he asserted that progress had been slowed by "the security quagmire" that exists there now.
"I see, Mr. Secretary, two Iraqs," Skelton said. "One is the optimistic Iraq that you describe, and we thank you for your testimony. And the other Iraq is the one that I see every morning, with the violence, the death of soldiers and marines.
"I must tell you, it breaks my heart a little bit more every day."
When Skelton asked Wolfowitz what lessons he had absorbed in the past 15 months, or roughly since all-out war ended and the mopping up and peacekeeping began, Wolfowitz responded at length about the evils of Saddam Hussein, his henchmen and their followers.
Skelton then broke in:
"Mr. Secretary, let me interrupt if I may. My question is, what lessons we have learned, you have learned in the last 15 months."
Wolfowitz replied that military planners might have underestimated how persistent the anti-American forces might be even after the several dozen leaders of the Baghdad regime had been killed or captured.
Continuing, Wolfowitz said that the Iraqis themselves must eventually impose security on their country, not just to stabilize the government but to allow ordinary Iraqis to go about their lives.
Skelton then asked, "You think we might be there, then, a good number of years?"
"I think it's entirely possible," Wolfowitz replied. "But what I think is also nearly certain is the more they step up, and they will be doing so more and more each month, the less and less we will have to do."
Wolfowitz added: "As they take over more responsibility, we will be able to let them be in the front lines and us be in a supporting position."
The United States has about 138,000 soldiers and marines in Iraq. President George W. Bush has said repeatedly that United States forces will remain there as long as necessary, and not a day longer.
General Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said about 226,000 Iraqis were being trained for security positions, as against the 250,000 that will probably be required. Other countries are helping with that training, Pace said.
But Pace, a Marine Corps general, offered this assessment: "What I really wanted to say most was that 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."