WASHINGTON -- The U.S. ambassador to Iraq has told Congress that the recent spate of bombings in that country hasn't affected the U.S. schedule to withdraw its combat forces from the country by next August.
Christopher Hill told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that the next 12 months "is going to be absolutely crucial" in terms of security gains, diplomatic relations, and political progress.
But he said he is encouraged that recent violence, including the bombings of the country's Finance and Foreign ministries that killed nearly 100 people, has not brought Iraq back to the edge of civil war.
"The bombings in recent months show that we still have to deal with Al-Qaeda in Iraq that tries to rekindle violence," he said. "To the great credit of the Iraqi people, however, they have not risen to the bait."
Under a plan he announced shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama has set August 2010 as a deadline for removing all U.S. combat forces. A separate agreement with Iraq, reached by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, requires a complete U.S. withdrawal -- including noncombat military forces -- by the end of 2011.
'Entirely Their Decision'
Hill told the committee that he did not think the Iraqi government would ask Obama to move up either date, and in response to a legislator who asked whether Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki might put the question to the Iraqi people as a referendum item in the next election, Hill said: "I do not expect to see a referendum, but I want to make very clear [that] whether they have a referendum is entirely their decision."
Hill gave the Iraqi security forces credit for the decreased level of sectarian warfare in the country, saying that their professional development has advanced to the point where Iraqi citizens show them respect and believe they are committed to their duties.
He said he and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, plan to work closely over the next year to coordinate diplomatic and security operations as the relationship between Iraq and the United States moves from one "with a military face to one with a political face."
Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee expressed their disappointment that Iraqi officials have rarely offered expressions of gratitude for the sacrifices made by American troops in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
One committee member -- Dana Rohrbacker, a Republican from California -- noted that more than 4,300 U.S. troops have died in the country and said he was dismayed by "a total lack of gratitude on the part of the Iraqi people for the sacrifice that has been made."
"I have yet to hear Iraqis -- who I have been in direct contact with -- without [being prodded], say 'thank you' to America and express their gratitude," he said.
Hill replied that Iraqis are not reluctant to show their gratitude and said he hears Iraqis thanking America "every day."
Committee members also pressed Hill on Iranian influence in Iraq. At the outset of the hearing, Hill made it clear that Iran's behavior toward Iraq is something of a wild card and that if it is harboring hopes of expanding its influence once U.S. forces leave, it will still have to deal with the United States, which he said is digging in for a long relationship with Iraq.
"Another critical question is, of course, will Iran respect Iraq's sovereignty and understand that we, the United States, intends to have a long-term relationship with Iraq, and that we the United States consider a strong Iraq a positive element in the region," he said.
Hill said Iran and Iraq are linked by cultural, religious, and commercial ties but that there is also a "malevolent relationship," citing signs that Iranian weaponry is still finding its way into various Iraqi insurgent groups.
He even recounted how he found an Iranian rocket in his front yard after a rocket attack a few months ago.
"There is no question that Iran and Iraq should have a long-standing relationship. They are, after all, neighbors," Hill said. "But I think Iran needs to do a much better job of respecting Iraq's sovereignty and they should start by ceasing to provide weaponry to various extremist groups in Iraq."
The envoy also faulted the Iraqi government for not meeting its commitment to facilitate the return of refugees, including people forced from their homes by sectarian violence.
He called the Iraqi effort "disappointing" and said he plans to urge the government to make it a higher priority.