Although we have been successful in warding off another terrorist attack for over six years since September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda and its allies remain intent on killing innocent people and spreading an ideology of violence and hatred around the world. We must never lose sight of this grave threat to our American ideals, and we must remain vigilant in our defense of freedom and democracy, even as we face difficult challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on other fronts in the War on Terrorism.
Moving Toward a New Strategy.
After three successful elections in 2005, and the formation of a permanent government consisting of Sunnis, Shi'as, and Kurds, political progress in Iraq stalled following boycotts of the Iraqi Parliament by Sunnis and Shi'as. At the same time, violence increased significantly, allowing al-Qaeda terrorists, Shi'a death squads, and Sunni militias to carve up neighborhoods in cities and villages across Iraq. Terrorists and insurgents further disrupted the political process by engaging in daily attacks against innocent Iraqis and coalition forces throughout much of 2006 and 2007, testing the commitment of US and coalition forces.
The pre-Surge period highlighted the fact that there can be no political progress in Iraq until Iraqis take control of their country. I believe it is our responsibility and within our national interest to aid Iraqis in achieving this goal. Our forces have made significant progress in this area with the training of the Iraqi Security Forces. As of June 2008, the number of trained and equipped Iraqi Security Forces has increased to 478,524. Iraqi Forces will assume control of Anbar Providence on June 28, an important milestone in the transfer of security to Iraqis. Furthermore, Iraqi Security Forces are projected to assume full control of at least 16 of the 18 Iraqi providences by the end of 2008. It is essential that Iraqis assume full responsibility for defeating the insurgency and securing their country. We must continue to provide training to Iraqis so that they can shoulder the responsibility of securing of their country, allowing us to bring our troops home as quickly as possible.
Surge Establishes Concrete Security Gains.
On January 10, 2007, President Bush announced his decision for a new way forward in Iraq. Stressing the need to secure Baghdad and its surrounding area, the President increased the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by approximately 30,000. These troops were imbedded within Iraqi army and police units in Baghdad and throughout Iraq, and their mission was to establish a security presence within areas cleared by Iraqi and American forces, ensuring that insurgents do not move back in.
Over the past year, the Surge has shown dramatic signs of success in enhancing Iraq's security, turning the tide against al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, breaking apart Shi'a death squads, and reducing the need for local militias. Attacks across Iraq have declined to the lowest levels in four years. In addition, overall indicators of violence have decreased by 80%, and overall civilian deaths have fallen to their lowest levels in two years. These encouraging signs show that the Surge has allowed Iraqi and coalition forces make concrete security gains against terrorists and insurgents.
An even more encouraging sign of the Surge's success can be seen in the stand Iraqi citizens are taking against the terrorists and insurgents. Inspired by the Anbar Awakening, local and tribal leaders in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces have entered into agreements with Iraqi and coalition forces to form Concerned Local Citizen groups (CLCs). CLCs provide security in their neighborhoods by establishing checkpoints, conducting patrols, providing intelligence, and accompanying Iraqi and Coalition forces on combat missions. According to recent DoD reports, more than 100,000 CLCs are helping Iraqi and coalition forces on the ground. Over time, the Government of Iraq hopes to integrate many of these individuals into the Iraqi police forces.
As a result of these concrete gains in security, Army Combat Brigade Teams and Marine Expeditionary Units have been rotating out of Iraq at a rate of one unit per month since December of 2007. The remaining Surge troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by July. Following the departure of the remaining Surge combat troops, General Petraeus hopes to work with U.S. commanders to comprehensively assess conditions on the ground before authorizing future troop redeployments. If the outlook for maintaining the security gains of the Surge remains high, General Petraeus hopes to resume rotating troops out of Iraq sometime this fall.
Of course, these recommendations depend on the Government of Iraq's ability to build upon recent progress of the troop surge. That is why we must continue helping the Iraqis prepare their security forces to take the lead in operations. We want to see this transition happen as soon as possible, so that our troops can come home without fear of undermining the security situation necessary for any political progress to take place. While I would prefer to see an accelerated timetable for bringing our soldiers home, I understand that drawing down our forces suddenly, without regard for the conditions on the ground or the ability of the Iraqis to defend themselves, would forfeit the progress our troops have already achieved.
Modest Political Progress.
So far, the Surge has been successful, and I believe it is providing a real chance for victory in Iraq. This strategy has helped secure Baghdad, accelerated the turn-over of security responsibility to Iraqis, and given the Iraqi people a reason to believe in their government. While I am confident that our troops will continue to keep the terrorists and insurgents on the run, my apprehension remains concerning whether the Iraqi government can deliver on the political promises they have made. Facing a heavy legislative agenda, Iraqi political leaders must put aside sectarian interests and begin compromising on several key legislative initiatives.
Some legislative steps have been made to help alleviate sectarian grievances. In November 2007, the Iraqi Government enacted key pension reform law that grants pension payments to most lower-to-mid level civil service employees whose pensions had previously been denied as a result of their service with the Hussein regime. Recognizing the service of the Hussein regime's lower level employees, who did not commit any crimes, was a critical step toward national unification. I hope the Government of Iraq can build on the legislative momentum provided by this important sectarian compromise.
Key reforms are also needed to correct the injustices of de-Baathification law enacted by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) after the fall of Saddam. Early on, the CPA assumed that nearly everyone in the upper echelons of Saddam's Baath party acted in compliance with many of the crimes attributed to the regime. De-Baathification was intended to purge all Saddam loyalists from the new Iraqi Government, denying them a chance to sabotage the young democracy. This controversial initiative drove thousands of Iraqis from their jobs, alienating them from the political process and causing much of the anger that fuelled early Sunni insurgencies. In January 2008, the Iraqi Council of Representatives passed crucial de-Baathification reform legislation which corrects some of these injustices. This legislative success was quickly followed by the approval of a general pardon law seeking to ally important Sunni demands for limited amnesty for certain detained insurgents, a key sticking point in Sunni-Shi'a relations.
Unfortunately, there is little progress to report on two other key legislative initiatives. A package of four Hydrocarbon Framework laws are floundering in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, with significant disagreements on how to pursue development of Iraq's domestic oil industry. Proposals establishing provincial powers and election law are also stuck in the Council of Representatives, despite some promising progress earlier this year. In these cases, sectarian differences have prevented real compromises from being forged, and boycotts by certain Sunni political leaders in the Council of Representatives are hindering these efforts. These critical laws must be passed in order to achieve national unification and allow the survival of the young Iraqi democracy.
While I am glad that some achievements have been made on critical legislative initiatives, the overall progress of the Iraqi Government leaves much to be desired. The Iraqi Government must seize the opportunity provided by the increased security of the Surge and hammer out compromises to the remaining items on their legislative agenda. If the Iraqi government is able to accomplish the tasks being asked of them, a safe and democratic Iraq will provide needed stability to the region.
The Need for Success in Iraq.
As we move forward with post-Surge operations in Iraq, we must bear in mind the consequences of failure in Iraq and its implications for the American people. It is crucial that we not withdraw before Iraqi Security Forces, who already control nine of Iraq's 18 provinces, are able to capitalize on the Surge's security gains and permanently deny al-Qaeda terrorists safe haven. If we withdraw too quickly, al-Qaeda's diminished ranks would rematerialize, taking advantage of Iraq and its oil wealth to plot and fund new attacks against the citizens of the United States and free people throughout the world. As a father of three young children, I realize the importance of ensuring Iraq does not become the new base for world-wide terrorist operations.
In addition, if our troops begin withdrawing prematurely, the deteriorated security situation in Baghdad seen in the pre-Surge period would likely return and devolve into unrestrained sectarian genocide. Without fear of reprisal from U.S. forces, the bloody struggle between Sunni insurgents and Shi'a death squads would increase dramatically in scope and expand far beyond Baghdad. Our commitment to the vast majority of Iraqi citizens, who want nothing more than to live in peace, precludes a hasty departure of our troops before the Iraqi security forces are given the best opportunity we can offer in this situation to take control of their country and prevent the impending genocide.
Finally, if Iraqi security forces are left suddenly without support from U.S. forces, Iraq's neighbors would have an even greater opportunity to expand their influence in that country. Iran, whose leadership continues to support the development of nuclear power and advanced missile technology, would only be emboldened by their expanded influence in the region. Unchecked aggression by an Iran inching ever-closer to nuclear weapons capability could lead to an arms race among nearby Arab nations, directly threatening the fragile peace that exists throughout the Middle East and the very existence of Israel. All three of these nightmare scenarios could be likely outcomes if the Iraqi government does not succeed in maintaining stability in Iraq. I believe that we must give the Iraqis this best, last chance to succeed before conceding victories to our enemies.