U.S. upbeat on Iraq despite violence, deadlock
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials gave an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq on Wednesday, despite Iraqi politicians' failure to form a government five months after elections and a sharp rise in civilian deaths in July.
"Iraq is on a positive trajectory," Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, told journalists at the White House.
He was speaking on a day in which insurgents killed eight Iraqi soldiers in northern Diyala province and two policemen in Baghdad, the latest assaults on Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops prepare to end their combat mission on August 31.
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, briefed Obama and his National Security Council on Wednesday, telling the president that July was the third least violent month in Iraq since January 2004.
Washington acknowledges the continued violence but stresses it has fallen sharply since the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-2007, when thousands of Iraqis were killed in bloodletting between majority Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.
As Iraqis began observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. officials said they expected an uptick in violence with al Qaeda insurgents trying to exploit the failure of political factions to agree on a new government after a parliamentary election in March.
Sectarian violence erupted after Iraq's 2005 parliamentary election, when politicians took more than five months to negotiate a new government.
Tony Blinken, another member of the National Security Council, said al Qaeda was trying "to get back into the game" after 34 of the group's top 42 leaders in Iraq were killed or captured in the last four months.
"They have been severely set back but are not out of the picture yet," he said.
According to Iraqi government ministries, the number of civilians killed in daily bombings, shootings and other attacks nearly doubled in July to 396 from 204 in June. Fifty soldiers and 89 police officers were also killed.
TRAINING AND ADVISING
The U.S. officials emphasized what Washington views as the growing capability of Iraq's security forces, who will take charge on August 31, when some 50,000 remaining American troops will officially transition to an "advise and assist role."
Obama has promised that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011, under a security agreement signed by the United States and Iraq, and Rhodes said "all systems" in the U.S. government were working toward meeting that deadline.
Some military personnel, however, will stay to help train Iraqi troops to use the military hardware that Iraq is buying from the United States, the U.S. officials said.
Blinken said the personnel, who could number anywhere from dozens to "maybe hundreds", would operate under the control of the U.S. ambassador and would be based in the U.S. embassy.
Obama's national security adviser, Jim Jones, said the U.S. military trained and advised foreign militaries around the world.
"In a normal relationship with a new Iraq and a new government we intend to have that relationship," he said in an interview with CNN.
But, there would not be a significant troop presence in Iraq after the end of 2011, he added.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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