Iraq not ready to stand on own, lawmakers say

A war-weary Congress and American public must realize the U.S. mission in Iraq will stretch years beyond a December troop-withdrawal goal, two prominent House members said Wednesday.

Under a Washington-Baghdad pact, most U.S. forces are set to leave Iraq by the end of this year as the Pentagon cedes control to the State Department. As that date nears, and since the Obama administration escalated the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, Iraq is no longer a front-burner issue for many.

“Most Americans believe we’re done in Iraq,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia subcommittee. “That is at odds with the reality in Iraq.

“The American people thought they had already bought this and paid for this,” Ackerman said. “That appears to not be the case.”

So, too, did members of Congress.

That means the White House soon will have to start “selling a lot of members,” Ackerman said, predicting that the “collision” of reality and lawmakers’ desires “will not be pretty.”

The State Department is slated to assume responsibility for helping Iraqi leaders build up that nation’s military, economic and governing entities on Jan. 1.

“Although the administration’s plan to transition the mission is well-intentioned, I am concerned that it is neither well-timed nor well-reasoned,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman.

Chabot, who just returned from an Iraq trip, said that nation is “on the course to become a stable, secure and democratic country.” But it is “not there yet,” he warned.

“Thousands of lives have been lost. Billions of dollars have been spent,” Chabot said. “The worst possible outcome for us today would be to withdraw before Iraq is ready to stand on its own.”

The veteran lawmakers’ warnings come as Congress grows increasingly fatigued with the various wars in which the U.S. is engaged.

The House last Thursday narrowly (204-215) shot down an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill that would have required the Defense Department to develop a plan for an “accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities.”

Then, on Wednesday, House GOP leaders stripped a measure offered by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to withdraw U.S. forces from Libya. The chairman of the House Republican Conference, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), told The Hill the leadership made the decision because a Wednesday morning meeting at the White House prevented it from fully discussing the Libya issue with members.

While some in Washington and others in Baghdad believe Iraq’s security forces will be capable of maintaining hard-fought security gains when U.S. forces leave this year, Chabot questioned those assumptions.

“Although it may be politically expedient both in the U.S. and Iraq to seek withdrawal by [Dec. 31], it may not be sound strategy,” the sub-panel chairman warned.

Colin Kahl, deputy assistant Defense secretary for the Middle East, told the subcommittee that U.S. officials believe Iraqi forces will be ready to perform “internal defense” tasks by Dec. 31. But they will not be trained or equipped to fight an external foe, Kahl said.

April was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since November 2009, according to the independent group icasualties.org.

Kahl said the overall number of attacks over the last two years has been the lowest of the war, which commenced in 2003.

Ackerman said the White House needs to charge a single official with the job of explaining to the American people why the Iraq mission is far from over.

“If there’s no one in charge of selling it,” he said, “no one is going to buy it.”

— Mike Lillis and Russell Berman contributed.