Senator Levin’s News Briefing on Iraq: 08/22/07

The most striking feature of any visit to Iraq is the bravery and professionalism of American troops. And their courage, combined with the increased Iraqi army capability and willingness to fight, has resulted in some reduced violence in some places in Iraq.

Despite that, there’s a continuing — as a matter of fact, I’d say a deepening — consensus that there is no military solution to the sectarian strife in Iraq, and that the only hope of ending that violence is political compromise between the leaders of the feuding groups.

But the political leaders continue to ignore the desperate situation that their people find themselves in, and recent discussions among top political leaders have apparently produced little or nothing.

That failure has reinforced the widely held view that the Maliki government is nonfunctional and cannot produce a political settlement because it is too beholden to religious and sectarian leaders.

Iraqi leaders have not met their own political benchmarks to share power and resources and to modify the de-Baathification laws and to schedule provincial elections and to amend their constitution.

So I hope that the Iraqi assembly, when it reconvenes in a few weeks, will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and a more unifying prime minister and government.

As to the Iraqi army, it has gained in strength and confidence and capability. At the present time, 10 of the 12 Iraqi divisions that they need have been trained. And by the end of this year, they will have trained over 11 of the 12 needed divisions.

Now, that’s over 163,000 trained Iraqi soldiers. And that’s over 90 percent of their goal for their army.

Our commanders are much more positive than they were 10 months ago about the Iraqi army’s ability to take responsibility for their own security.

One U.S. soldier, who is in his third deployment to Iraq, told us that the Iraqi soldiers will let U.S. soldiers do the job that they’re supposed to be doing forever, and that we need to let them do it on their own.

And that’s the view of many of our troops, although obviously not all of them.

They’re incredibly professional, and they will do their duty. But there’s also, I think, a growing feeling that there’s a need for the Iraqi army to take greater responsibility.

The Iraqi army does need more equipment and logistics support. And we can and should expedite delivery of equipment that Iraq has bought from us and paid for. And we also should give them surplus equipment, where it will speed up the transfer of responsibility to Iraqi forces.

But it is clear to me that the capability that the Iraqi military now has and will have by the end of this year will allow us to begin reducing U.S. forces significantly below our pre-surge level.

We should begin that reduction within four months. The increased Iraqi capability will also allow us to move most of our forces out of Iraq by the middle of next year and to transition the forces that need to remain to perform missions away from the civil war.

Those missions include counterterrorism against Al Qaida in Iraq, force protection, and continued training and logistics support for the Iraqi army.

Taking those steps, on that kind of a reasonable timetable, will give us the needed time to carefully plan redeployments and will give the Iraqis time to make political compromises, by replacement of their current nonfunctional government or otherwise.

I believe that reducing the number of our forces provides the only hope of getting the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future, which is such an essential step for success in Iraq.