The challenging road ahead in Iraq

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Congress should consider a redefinition of our troops’ mission

The war in Iraq is the biggest challenge facing our nation. As Sen. Richard Lugar urged in his thoughtful speech recently, it is clearly time for a bipartisan effort to chart a new direction in Iraq. Political posturing should be completely out of bounds at a time when our armed forces are sacrificing so much.

Instead of finger-pointing and blame, it is time for leaders of both parties to work together and for the President to be willing to pursue a new strategy that embraces political and diplomatic means and decreases our military commitment, as recommended by Sen. Lugar and the Iraq Study Group, which was co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Lee Hamilton.

The president’s current strategy involves the deployment of thousands of additional American troops. My trip to Iraq in December convinced me the president’s plan to commit thousands of additional troops to Baghdad was a mistake, which is why I authored a bipartisan resolution with senators John Warner and Ben Nelson in opposition to the surge.

Resolving the sectarian violence that engulfs Baghdad requires a political, not a military, solution in which the Sunni minority is more fully integrated into the power structures and oil revenues are more fairly distributed among Iraq’s citizens. The president contended additional American troops would give Iraqi leaders the “space” to forge ahead with the political reconciliation needed to quell the sectarian strife.

I think just the opposite is true – the additional American commitment relieves the pressure on Iraqi leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to work toward reconciliation.

The fact is, the Iraqi government appears to have made little progress toward that goal since the surge started. And our troops have paid a heavy price. While fewer innocent Iraqi civilians have been killed in recent weeks, June was one of the deadliest months for American troops.

We will soon have an assessment of military, political, and economic indicators in Iraq on which to base a new strategy. On July 15, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of our forces, will report on whether the Iraqis are meeting a number of benchmarks essential to achieving political reconciliation. This report, and a second scheduled for Sept. 15, were mandated by provisions I co-authored with Sen. Warner.

The benchmarks include: an increase in the number of Iraqi security forces capable of operating independently, the implementation of de-Baathification legislation, the enactment of constitutional and electoral reforms, and the passage of legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of oil revenues.

The law also conditions the release of reconstruction funds on progress made by the Iraqi government in achieving these benchmarks. In conjunction with the September report, the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which I serve, will hold a public hearing for Gen. Petraeus to provide a full assessment of the current U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Gen. Petraeus’ reports on whether the Iraqis are meeting the required benchmarks will weigh heavily as we determine the future of our commitment in Iraq. So far, the president’s strategy has not produced sufficient results, despite significant sacrifices by our military. Gen. Petraeus’ analysis and that of other experts, as well as the reports from troops on the ground, will help us evaluate our options.

At this point, Congress should consider all options, including the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations and a redefinition of our mission. Our commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq cannot be open-ended or unconditional.

And the time for partisan politics to determine the direction of our policy in Iraq is long over.

Sen. Susan Collins is a two-term Republican senator from Maine.

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