WASHINGTON The U.S. military's planned withdrawal from Iraq by the end of next year is not expected to trigger a dramatic increase in violence, a senior U.S. defense official told Congress Thursday.
"Despite the often exaggerated media narrative that depicts Iraq on the verge of unraveling, the underlying security situation remains strong," Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said in prepared remarks to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Overall violence has fallen sharply in Iraq since the height of the sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007 but killings and bombings still occur daily, followed every few weeks by a major, devastating assault by insurgents.
Kahl acknowledged recent high-profile attacks by al Qaeda-led insurgents but said, "These attacks have repeatedly failed to accomplish (al Qaeda in Iraq's) objective: to spark a return to widespread insurgency and communal civil war."
U.S. public attention has largely shifted away from the unpopular Iraq war, which has cost the United States nearly $1 trillion dollars and killed more than 4,400 U.S. troops.
U.S. combat operations officially ended in August and the remaining 50,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq must leave the country by the end of 2011 under a bilateral security accord.
"Our military footprint on the ground is currently so light compared to what it used to be that the remaining drawdown is very unlikely to trigger a dramatic uptick in violence," Kahl said.
Shi'ite power Iran has wielded great influence in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who waged an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. That influence is one factor that analysts cite when arguing for a robust U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2011.
The United States has blamed Iraqi militants backed by Iran for a quarter of U.S. casualties in the war. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, criticized "Iran's continued support and training of militant groups that target both Iraqis and U.S. personnel."
"Iran should respect Iraqi sovereignty and end its support for those who carry out terrorist attacks in Iraq," he said in testimony to the committee.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly said he is open to a conversation about keeping some additional forces in Iraq if its new government chooses to make such a request.
Iraq's political leaders hammered out a deal last week ending an eight-month political impasse by agreeing to give Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a second term, following an inconclusive March election.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said wranglings over the future formation of the broader government would delay potential discussions about any extended presence of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011.
"They have a lot of work to do over the next 30 days to form the rest of the key ministries," Morrell said.
"We are open to having such a conversation with the Iraqi government at the appropriate time. But I think they have other priorities at this very moment."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Bill Trott)