US still faces 'volatile situation' in Iraq despite strategic gains

The biggest increases in violence have been seen in the cities of Basra and Kirkuk, the Pentagon's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen told House lawmakers on Tuesday. 

"The year began violently in January, [but] March ... saw the least violent month since 2003. So it's a very volatile situation," Bowen told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations. 

But Peter Verga, chief of staff for DOD's policy undersecretary, told lawmakers that the strategic goals for Iraq laid out by the White House were in reach, despite Bowen's assessment. 

"We are now at a point where the strategic dividends of our efforts are within reach," Verga said during the same hearing. "That successful transition enables us to concentrate on building that long-term strategic partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect." 

But a recent spate of bombings across Iraq this month have stirred up serious concern among DOD and State Department officials overseeing reconstruction efforts. 

A series of explosions rocked Baghdad and areas throughout central Iraq on Thursday, leaving roughly 15 people dead and scores of others wounded. That same day, a car bomb set off in the Diyala province killed five and injured 25 people, according to Reuters. 

A chain of coordinated bombings and attacks on June 16 killed more than 70 people, mostly Iraqi Shi'ites, according to recent reports. Leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which has experienced a resurgence in the country, claimed credit for those attacks. 

The Army's top uniformed commander in March told lawmakers that AQI's recent aggressiveness in Iraq was tied to the growing unrest in Syria. 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told lawmakers that instability in Syria was adding to “concern” in military circles and the ongoing rebellion “adding a difficult piece” to efforts to maintain peace in Iraq, amid the recent surge in al Qaeda-directed violence.

Syria was a common transit point for al Qaeda fighters heading to Iraq during the most violent years of the war. 

In spite of the recent spike in violence, Bowen defended the U.S. decision to significantly ramp down efforts to build up the country's police and security forces. 

Bowen admitted the initial scope of the police development program for Iraq was "ambitious" and did not take into account Baghdad's ability to carry out the program outlined by the United States. 

"I think it was a wise reduction," he told members of the subcommittee. That said, Bowen also noted that local Iraqi forces never "fully bought into" scope of the program since the beginning. 

As the security situation in Iraq becomes more unstable, the ability for Iraqi officials to meet the requirements of the scaled-down version of the program is also in doubt, according to Bowen. 

"The Iraqi's haven't fully bought into it and ... the security challenges that continue in Iraq have limited the capacity to execute ... the program," he said.