WASHINGTON – Officials from the State and Defense departments Wednesday expressed confidence that U.S. troops are welcome in Iraq,despite a recent poll that showed a majority of Iraqis opposed continued occupation.
“We are absolutely convinced that the Iraqi people overwhelmingly consider what happened last year a liberation from a tyrant,” Peter Rodman,assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs,told the House Armed Services Committee.
He admitted,however,that continued hardships over the past year foster resentment “especially when the people in authority are foreign forces sitting there under the banner of occupation.” That makes the June 30 return of power to an Iraq government even more important,he said.
Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter,R-Calif.,said the deadline “is a milestone on the road to a stable,democratic,and secure Iraq in which Iraqis decide the future of their own country.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority poll,which was not released publicly,found that just 10 percent of Iraqis support coalition troops,and 55 percent said they would feel safer with an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops,according to an Associated Press account of its findings.
Witnesses before the committee stressed the importance of transferring control of Iraq to the interim government in two weeks. But they would not provide a similar deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops after being repeatedly pressed by members of Congress to do so.
Rodman said it would be irresponsible to remove U.S. troops before ensuring that Iraqis could keep their country secure on their own,and he said that setting a definitive deadline could tempt insurgents to wait until after the deadline to ramp up their resistance.
Several committee members disagreed with that interpretation,pointing out that President Clinton never set a deadline for extracting troops from the Balkans after the end of conflict there and soldiers are still stationed in that region.
“If we can't accomplish it in a year and a half,I don't think we can accomplish it in five,” said Rep. Jim Turner,D-Texas,adding “no decision's irreversible” and the country could always extend a deadline if asked by Iraqi authorities.
The Pentagon does have preliminary deadlines for when it expects to have Iraqi police and civil defense forces fully trained,said Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp,Army director of strategic plans and policy.
Civil defense forces should be ready by September,and police should be in place by June 2005,he said,but those dates do not indicate similar goals for U.S. troop depletion.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie,D-Hawaii,assailed the witnesses,criticizing the results of the CPA poll and the lack of a timetable for troop reduction.
“The United States military is going to be set adrift … come June 30,” he said,calling the current plan “complete political lunacy” and “a fantasy.”
Rep. Curt Weldon,R-Pa.,noted that poll findings reported in Newsweek revealed that 71 percent of Iraqis depend of family and friends for security and 80 percent have no confidence in U.S. civilian authorities or coalition forces.
“As we transition the authority of the government,it's another major concern that I have,” he said.
The poll,conducted May 14-23,also found that 63 percent of Iraqis believe conditions will improve after the transfer of power,and 62 percent believe it is “very likely” that the Iraqi army and police will keep the country secure without the help of U.S. troops,according to AP.
Rodman defended the presence of U.S. troops,saying that all of the country's “moderate leaders” support a continued U.S. presence. But if the Iraqi government asks U.S. troops to leave the country,they would,he said.