US diplomats and other mission employees may not be safe in Iraq if the US military withdraws its remaining 50,000 troops and leaves the volatile country at the end of the year as planned, according to a new Senate report released on Tuesday.
The report by the Foreign Relations Committee puts new pressure on a delicate diplomacy between Washington and Baghdad to decide what future role US troops will have in Iraq — if one at all — before they start withdrawing this summer.
At least 159 Iraqi citizens and 100 police and soldiers were killed in insurgent attacks in last month, the deadliest month for Iraq since September, according to data released on Tuesday by security and health ministry officials in Baghdad.
An Associated Press count of Iraqis killed in attacks over two weeks alone puts the death toll at more than 200.
“The situation in Iraq is at a critical juncture,” concluded the report, issued a few hours before US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and General Lloyd Austin, commander of the US military in Iraq, testified before the Democratic-led Senate panel.
“Terrorist and insurgent groups are less active but still adept, the Iraqi army continues to develop but is not yet capable of deterring regional actors, and strong ethnic tensions remain along Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries,” the report said. “Although a government has finally been formed, it remains to be seen how cohesive and stable it will be.”
The report mostly focuses on protecting the US embassy in Baghdad and its four satellite offices around Iraq after the planned Dec. 31 withdrawal, a deadline required under a security agreement between the two countries.
Jeffrey and Austin offered a relatively upbeat assessment about the transition in Iraq from a military mission to a civilian-led effort. They cited progress among security forces, greater stability in the newly formed government and increased oil production that will generate revenue.
“By the time we draw down our forces they’ll have a pretty good capability to address internal security,” Austin told the committee.
Questioned about Iraq through the prism of the push for greater democracy in Egypt, Jeffrey said Iraqis “believe in a democratic system. This has become part of the ethos of this country.”
Jeffrey and Austin indicated, however, that it would be a while before Iraq could defend itself from outside forces.