The senior generals include General George Casey, the senior American commander in Iraq. Also appearing were America’s highest-ranking military official, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, and Gulf-region commander General John Abizaid.
The officials said U.S. forces are making progress against Iraq’s insurgents but that victory is still a long way off. And they suggested that progress in training Iraqi troops still remains too mixed to allow setting a timetable for beginning to withdraw U.S. forces from the country.
"We do not have a timeline or milestones that directly tie the draw down of coalition units to numbers of Iraqi battalions," Casey said. "As this happens, it will happen in a phased way around the country. So it's not something that lends itself, for example, when you have 20 Iraqi brigades, you'll be able to downsize four U.S. brigades. It's not quite that simple."
General Casey also said that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of fighting without involvement of U.S. troops has dropped from three battalions to one in the past three months.
He declined to specify the exact reasons for the decrease. But he said “we fully recognize the Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time, because they don’t have the institutional base to support them.”
Iraqi units are reported to suffer in part from frequent shuffling of the top management positions in the Ministry of Defense and armed forces. The shuffling has accompanied the successive changes in the Iraqi government since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Casey added that though only one Iraq battalion today can fight alone, some 30 battalions are seen as capable of taking the lead role in a U.S.-backed military operation against insurgents.
The mixed report of progress in building a stand-alone Iraqi Army caused sparring between the top U.S. military officials and some of the senators on the committee.
Senator John McCain objected to General Richard Myer’s statements that things were going well in Iraq. U.S. government and military officials have often cited as evidence of progress the fact that Iraq has successfully held national elections and now is preparing for a referendum on its draft constitution on 15 October.
"General Myers seems to assume that things have gone well in Iraq, General Myers seems to assume that [among] the American people the support for the conflict there is not eroding, General Myers seems to assume that everything has gone fine and that our declarations of victory, of which there have been many, have not had an impact on American public opinion. Things have not gone as we had planned or expected, nor as we were told by you General Myers," McCain said.
Senator McCain, a Republican, favors reinforcing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
The U.S. government’s position remains that U.S. forces will stay in Iraq as long as needed.
But one senator, Carl Levin, questioned whether that strategy is not inadvertently giving Iraqi politicians a sense that they have an open-ended timeline for dealing with problems.
"The presence of our forces in Iraq is not unlimited. The administration's repeated statements that we will stay in Iraq as long as needed sends the wrong message. We should not mislead the Iraqis into thinking that they have unlimited time to reach a broad-based political settlement," Levin said.
The hearings on yesterday came amid a surge in insurgent violence in Iraq that includes almost daily car and suicide bombings against Iraqi security personnel and civilians.
Iraqi police say that a car bomb exploded today [Friday] in a crowded vegetable market in the Shi'ite town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing at least 10 people and wounding 30.
The attack came one day after three car bombs killed at least 60 people in the town of Balad, just north of Baghdad.
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