Sen. Biden and Reed bleak on Iraq situation after visit

Two key Democratic senators just back from Iraq painted a bleak picture yesterday of the situation there, saying the failure of the country’s emerging government to stop the escalating violence and provide basic services has brought the country to the edge of civil war.

Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, cited Sunday’s killing of some 40 Sunni Arabs by Shiite militia “in broad daylight” in Baghdad, “a city that has 60,000 Iraqi security forces” and “is in tatters.

“If you don’t call that a nascent civil war, I don’t know what it is,” said Biden, who was making his seventh visit to Iraq since the U.S. invasion in April 2002.

Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and one of his party’s point men on Iraq, said that while the country “has not degenerated to the point where they’ve got large-scale Iraqi forces fighting with each other,” it is close to an all-out conflict.

Speaking to reporters in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery, Biden and Reed, who was making his eighth visit to Iraq, were sharply critical of the new government, as well as the lack of what Reed called “a coherent strategy” by the Bush administration to help quell the violence and rebuild Iraq’s devastated economy and ruined infrastructure.

“We both got the sense that political changes are being put on the back burner,” Reed said.

Reed is a West Point graduate and former company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division whose views are respected by U.S. military commanders. While he saw some progress on the political front and in the deployment of the Iraqi army, Reed said, the “situation remains critical and the outlook doubtful” because of continuing high unemployment, failure to improve the lives of most Iraqis and little progress in training Iraqi security forces.

While Biden praised the efforts of U.S. military forces and diplomatic officials in Iraq, he cited three “overwhelming” challenges facing the Iraqi government.

One is the absence of a political settlement to get the minority Sunnis to support the Shiite-dominated government. A second is the inability of the new government to deliver any services to the Iraqi people, and the third is mass unemployment, which he said has driven many Iraqis to join the insurgent forces.

Declaring that “we are making progress” in training Iraqi security forces, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the American military help “is already playing dividends” and “has been invaluable in building morale and confidence among the Iraqi ranks.”