WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who's been in charge of training police and soldiers in Iraq for nearly two years, gave no indication at a congressional hearing Tuesday that the Iraqis are performing well enough to start letting some American forces go home.
Dempsey said the Iraqis are making progress in building their military and police forces, but he also described serious problems, including the lack of a database to track whether Iraqis who attack Americans were some of those the U.S. trained.
Lawmakers on a House Armed Services subcommittee pressed Dempsey on how soon Iraqis might be ready to take over from Americans. "How would you answer the people back home who are saying, 'Are we in a black hole?'" said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
Dempsey said his wife at times asked him the same thing, as did two of his children who have served in Iraq as junior officers.
Iraqi army and national police forces will be "capable of taking over security in Iraq soon," Dempsey said, declining to give a date. Army units have become "increasingly proficient and have demonstrated their improved capability and resolve in battle."
He also said that the Iraqis were "very eager to take over responsibility for their own security." For the first time this year, Iraq will spend more on its security forces than the U.S. government spends on them, he said.
"Iraq is an important part of our future," Dempsey said, "and it may be that we have to sacrifice there for some time in order to achieve our objectives, unless the objectives change — and that's not a military decision. That's a political decision."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saidTuesday that Democratswould reoffer their proposals on Iraq in two weeks as amendments to the defense authorization bill. They include a timeline for withdrawal; standards for rest and training of service men and women deployed to Iraq; a proposal to limit the American mission to fighting terrorists, training Iraqis and protecting Americans; and a re-examination of the 2002 war authorization.
Dempsey also testified that:
_ U.S. forces are close to having a database that will make it possible to determine whether Iraqis captured after attacking U.S. forces were once U.S.-trained. But Iraqis control military reporting, and some Iraqis are resisting the database.
_ U.S. trainers regularly complain that Iraqis had removed some good officers and promoted bad ones. Some Iraqi explanations were reasonable, others "insidious." Some Iraqi leaders put loyalty to the Shiite-dominated central government above all else, especially in intelligence and operations.
_ Some Sunnis in Anbar province have turned away from al Qaida and started to cooperate with Americans. "What we've got to do, quite simply, is we've got to find a way to harness the power of these local initiatives, but tie it back to the center."
_ Iraq will not have an air force able to protect its air space for five years.
_ The country also lacks senior military officers.
_ Iraq's security forces will need to grow to take over from Americans. Iraq plans to add 45,000 men this year. Annual losses are 15 percent to 18 percent in the army and 20 percent to 22 percent in the police forces.
_ Corruption is common in local police forces throughout the region. In Iraq, local police now take the lead in providing security only in ethnically homogenous areas — the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. Elsewhere, they probably won't patrol effectively until Iraq settles its political problems and reduces the violence.
Dempsey returned to the United States on Monday after devoting three years to the war in Iraq and living apart from his wife for most of the past six years. He served for the past 22 months as the commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command — Iraq, commanded the 1st Armored Division in Iraq for 13 months, and in 2001-2003 served as a senior military adviser in Saudi Arabia. He next will be deputy commanding general of Central Command.
His testimony came as the House Armed Services subcommittee on investigations and oversight completes a report due June 28 on the development of the Iraqi security forces. The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., and its ranking Republican, Todd Akin of Missouri, issued a statement complaining that the Pentagon had made it difficult to get information.
Meehan has said that the Pentagon didn't provide witnesses and information that his subcommittee requested. The Pentagon also has withheld the classified 2007 Joint Campaign Plan, a strategy overview, even though subcommittee staffers have security clearances.
"We sincerely hope that the Department of Defense will begin to do a better job of relating to Congress and the American people how things are going on the ground in Iraq, and how the Iraqis are performing," Meehan and Akin's statement said.
Other quotes, possibly for breakout box:
_ Subcommittee member Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md.: "Americans would like to have on their refrigerator a checklist that says how many of these forces we need and what laws need to be passed. And they want to check those off month by month so that they know when this thing will be over. I would hope that the administration would focus on developing those numbers so that our citizens can have that assurance that there will be an end to this."
_ Dempsey: "If it's in the United States' interest to have a strategic partner in that part of the world, which is a very dangerous part of the world, you know, situated with Iran and Syria, the volatile Mideast conflict, and this, let's face it, existence of radical Islam that . . . believes . . . that their way of life is completely anathema to ours, if it's important to have a strategic partner in that part of the world, Iraq should be that partner. It's got oil, of course, but more important, has water, it has agriculture, it has human capital, it has a very fine education system, and it has a history that is as rich as any in the world."