WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. general and diplomat in Iraq are expected to argue against a major decrease in troop levels for now in much-awaited testimony to Congress on Monday, but leading Democrats said the administration was pursuing a failed strategy.
In Baghdad, Iraq’s Shi’ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, said on Sunday his government had made progress on all fronts and urged neighboring countries to work together to stop what he called “evil” from destabilizing the region.
Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will likely make the case a major change in U.S. President George W. Bush’s strategy in the deeply unpopular war could make matters worse, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The official told Reuters that Petraeus and Crocker were expected to warn that a big cut in troop levels could undercut any progress made under the “surge” of forces into Iraq this year.
Bush, under mounting pressure to change course in Iraq, urged Democratic lawmakers demanding a timetable for troop withdrawal to listen to Petraeus and Crocker before “jumping to any conclusions.”
Bush plans a prime-time speech on the U.S. role in Iraq on Thursday, but is not expected to announce a major policy shift after four years of a deeply unpopular war that has killed more than 3,700 U.S. troops and over 70,000 Iraqis.
The U.S. official said Petraeus and Crocker also were not expected to advocate any change in Iraq’s leadership despite frustration at its failure to reconcile Iraq’s Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations.
Senior U.S. Democrats have criticized Maliki’s performance, and some have even called for his replacement.
MALIKI TOUTS GAINS
Maliki, addressing a meeting of officials from neighboring countries and Western powers such as the United States, said his government had made progress “in all directions.”
The purpose of the meeting is to review the work of several committees that were set up after a conference in Egypt in May where ministers from the region and the West discussed ways to stabilize Iraq.
“This government is working hard to develop the political situation. It has made many gains despite the huge destruction left by the former regime,” Maliki said.
But Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said the Iraqi government had met only three of 18 of its own benchmarks for achieving stabilizing the country.
“None of us should be fooled,” he told ABC’s “This Week.” “You can take a tactical success and misread it as we did in Vietnam.”
The Bush administration boosted troop levels -- now at 168,000 -- to improve security and allow Iraqi politicians time to stabilize the country.
The buildup has not done either, said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential election.
“The truth of the matter is that the American administration’s policy and the surge are a failure,” Biden told NBC.
The U.S. military said it had killed a senior al Qaeda militant who masterminded truck bomb attacks on Iraq’s minority Yazidi community last month that killed more than 400 people.
Military spokesman Rear Adm. Mark Fox said Abu Mohammad al-Afri was killed in an air strike southwest of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last Monday. Fox said Afri was an associate of Abu Ayyab al-Masri, the Egyptian leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
“Iraq is a violent place, but it is clearly less violent than it was last winter,” Fox told a news conference, referring to a reduction in the number of large-scale attacks in recent months.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said discussions at Sunday’s meeting needed to include measures to tighten Iraq’s borders so “terrorists and killers” cannot get into and out of the country.
Washington accuses Iran and Syria of not doing enough to stop the flow of fighters and weapons into Iraq. Both countries, which have officials at the meeting, have denied the charges.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Ross Colvin in Baghdad and Arshad Mohammed in Washington
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