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Senate hears an overall downbeat report on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

As Congress opened a monthlong showdown with President Bush over Iraq, Senate war critics on Tuesday demanded evidence that the security improvements claimed by the White House could be sustained once American forces hand off the task of maintaining order to Iraqi military units.

Establishing a theme likely to be repeated during upcoming hearings, Democratic senators pressed the nation’s senior legislative analyst for indications that security gains could last. But David M. Walker, head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said it remained unclear whether Iraq’s military and police were capable of maintaining the improvements brought about since an additional 28,500 U.S. troops were sent to Iraq earlier this year.

Bush and U.S. commanders repeatedly have pointed to declines in both sectarian killings and attacks on security forces in underscoring the need to continue stepped-up U.S. efforts. But Democrats on Tuesday sought to highlight the country’s continuing instability.

“Do you think that the Iraqi security forces will be able to hold neighborhoods cleared by American forces?” Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) asked Walker. “Is there any reason to think that any gains that have been made during the recent surge will actually hold in the long run?”

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Replied Walker: “I think there’s serious question as to whether or not they on their own will be able to hold these neighborhoods for an extended period of time.”

The new environment “is an improvement, but it’s separate and distinct as to whether it’s sustainable,” Walker told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in rolling out a generally bleak report on the U.S. mission.

With Army Gen. David H. Petraeus expected to deliver a more upbeat progress report to Congress on Monday, war critics are trying to use a series of hearings this week to frame the issue. Reviewing the GAO report, they pointed out that government auditors disputed the administration’s contention that the troop buildup has improved security overall and pointed out that progress toward political reconciliation has been scant.

The GAO report found that of 18 designated benchmarks set out for Iraqi leaders last year, the country has met three, partially met four and failed to meet 11. The agency’s findings that benchmarks had not been met were widely reported last week.

Walker said data were contradictory on whether sectarian violence in Iraq had, in fact, declined. Some data examined by auditors “show increases, some show decreases, and some show inconsistent patterns,” he said.

And he noted that the average number of attacks was the same in July as it was in February, when planning for the troop buildup was just beginning.

Walker said that only two of nine benchmarks dealing with security had been met: The government has established security posts in Baghdad, and it has organized committees to carry out the Baghdad security plan.

But, he said, it had failed on five others. The government had not, for example, eliminated militia control of local security, ended political meddling in security operations or increased the number of army units capable of operating without U.S. support.

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Walker denied under questioning by senators that he had changed any of the report’s conclusions because of administration pressure. But, he said, after the Pentagon provided additional data, he had decided to change two benchmark ratings to “partially met” -- on the requirements to provide three capable Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad security operations and to shut down all “safe havens” where enemy fighters could find protection.

Tuesday’s hearing was the first of a parade of upcoming sessions as Democratic lawmakers discussed how to resume their campaign to force Bush to begin a troop withdrawal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) again challenged his Republican colleagues to join the effort.

“It’s time to make a decision,” Reid said from the Senate floor. “We can’t continue the way we are.”

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But neither Reid nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), both of whom aggressively pushed troop withdrawal legislation before the August recess, have outlined what precisely they will do next.

Democrats acknowledge they still do not have enough Republican votes to send the president a firm timeline for pulling out troops. But any compromise that might attract GOP support may outrage a Democratic antiwar base increasingly frustrated by Congress’ inability to successfully challenge the White House over the war.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate met Tuesday evening. Discussions were expected to resume in earnest today when Senate Democrats meet for their weekly luncheon and House Democrats hold their weekly caucus meeting.

Also Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, expressing frustration with the president’s troop buildup and the fierce partisan debates over the war, sent a letter to Pelosi and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) urging a bipartisan dialogue on Iraq.

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“We should not wait any longer to come together in support of a responsible post-surge strategy to safely bring our troops home to their families,” the 11 lawmakers wrote.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Iraq on Capitol Hill

Tuesday: Senate Foreign Relations Committee hears a presentation on a Government Accountability Office report.

Today: The House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees hear from the GAO.

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Thursday: The Senate and House armed services committees hear a presentation from retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the former supreme allied commander for Europe, who reports deficiencies in Iraqi police services; the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a closed meeting on the recent National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq.

Friday: The Senate Armed Services Committee hears from the GAO.

Monday, Sept. 10: Army Gen. David H. Petraeus testifies before Congress, along with Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

(A date has not been set for possible appearances by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

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Source: Los Angeles Times


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