US's Petraeus leaves some Iraq issues unaddressed

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WASHINGTON, Sep 11 (Reuters) The US commander in Iraq and America's ambassador to Baghdad, in their assessment of the war to the US Congress, left much unsaid about growing problems and several big challenges ahead.

In two days of testimony ending today, Gen David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker devoted little attention to rising violence between Shi'ite rivals struggling for power in Iraq's southern region.

They were also silent on approaching hurdles, such as the referendum due on control of Kirkuk's oil riches, which analysts fear could drag another city into sectarian bloodshed.

''The two gave a sober report but left out some key issues,'' said Bruce Riedel, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington thinktank.

''The inter-Shia war in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, was ignored. The decline in allied troop support since January from 15,000 to 11,000 was ignored. The threat of a new conflict over Kirkuk in the north was not discussed,'' he said.

''Most important, there was little effort to lay out how Iraqis are going to achieve a national reconciliation. That was, of course, the mission of the surge in January.'' Petraeus, in testimony before congressional panels, said a ''surge'' of 30,000 US troops in Iraq had improved security and helped drive attacks and civilian deaths lower.

But those gains have not been met with progress by Iraqi lawmakers on legislation seen by Washington as critical to long-term stability, Petraeus and Crocker agreed.

Both men recognized challenges lay ahead, but they focused on gains that had been achieved. Crocker said his aim was to show the United States could achieve goals laid out by the Bush administration.

''SOBER'' ASSESSMENT ''This is a sober assessment, but it should not be a disheartening one,'' Crocker told lawmakers.

But defense analysts along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress said the assessment was not sober enough because it failed to present a full picture of current violence and potential flashpoints in Iraq.

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel criticized Petraeus and Crocker for not addressing violence among Shi'ites groups, including Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, the Fadhila party and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, whose armed wing controls police in much of the south.

Gun battles in Kerbala killed 52 and drove thousands of pilgrims out of the city in August. The governors of two provinces in the south and a police chief were killed last month in separate attacks believed linked to the infighting.

When pressed on the recent violence in the south, Petraeus appeared to play down the significance.

''Muthanna province, even though the governor was assassinated, we're pretty certain by militia extremists, continues to stay fine. They will have a new governor. They'll work out OK,'' Petraeus said.

Reuters TB VP0130

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