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Iraq more dangerous than a year ago, U.S. review finds

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BAGHDAD — The security situation in Iraq is more dangerous than it was a year ago, according to a government watchdog report issued Saturday that cites more attacks on U.S. troops, a continuing wave of assassinations targeting Iraqi officials and a growing number of indirect rocket strikes on Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, wrote in his quarterly report to Congress and the Obama administration. “It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago.”

The findings contrast with public statements by U.S. diplomatic and military officials in Iraq and come as Washington awaits a final decision by Iraqi leaders on whether they want U.S. troops to stay in the country beyond the expiration of a three-year security agreement in December. U.S. officials have said they are willing to extend the American military presence into 2012 only after receiving a formal request from Iraqi leaders.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top leaders postponed a meeting scheduled for Saturday to debate any future U.S. military presence, once again dashing hopes of quickly resolving the issue. Maliki instead was scheduled to appear before the Iraqi parliament to defend plans to cut the 46-member cabinet down to 30 members — another long-simmering political dispute that appears far from resolution.

With about 46,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, U.S. military officials are urging Maliki and his colleagues to reach a final decision before tens of thousands of U.S. troops begin departing this fall.

Maliki has said any decision must be put to the Iraqi parliament, but some lawmakers, eager to avoid voting on the issue, are pushing the Iraqi interior and defense ministries to sign new military training agreements with the Pentagon. U.S. officials have said that any agreement to extend the U.S. military presence should include guarantees of legal immunity for American forces.

Bowen’s report noted that 14 U.S. troops were killed by hostile fire in Iraq in June, the bloodiest month since April 2009. Most of the attacks are linked to Shiite militias, who U.S. military officials say are receiving weapons and training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.

Five U.S. service members have died in July, according to military figures.

The insurgent groups may also be connected to increased rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and other foreign outposts, U.S. military bases and several Iraqi government ministries, Bowen said. Although no Americans have been killed in the rocket attacks, several Iraqis were killed when a rocket struck a housing complex July 4.

At least 248 Iraqi civilians and 193 members of Iraqi security forces were killed between April and mid-June, the report said. More than 100 died in ­mass-casualty suicide attacks, including significant explosions in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi.

Bolstering his arguments, Bowen noted that intelligence estimates suggest that as many as 1,000 al-Qaeda-affiliated militants remain in Iraq. Several Iraqi government officials have been assassinated in the past three months, including judges, senior generals and civil servants. Suicide bombers also continue targeting Iraqi security forces, police officers and local government officials, and anti-government forces continue targeting Iraq’s oil infrastructure, the report said.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, lead spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq, said that Iraq’s security remains a complex issue, “one that is difficult to summarize in short-term trends and figures.”

Buchanan said the U.S. military will do what is necessary to “actively defend” its troops and added, “Iraqi forces, with our assistance when needed, continue to conduct warranted operations against those responsible for suicide attacks, assassinations, attacks on Iraq’s oil infrastructure, and other activities related to sowing violence.”

The report highlighted growing tensions between the State Department and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, or SIGIR, regarding oversight of reconstruction projects. In one instance, the report said the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad declined to provide information about the use of contracts used to manage reconstruction programs.

The embassy also “took an extremely circumscribed view” of how many embassy personnel are working on the reconstruction effort, Bowen said. In what he called an “implausibly narrow approach,” the embassy said just 10 U.S. government officials and 57 contractors — or 0.08 percent of all U.S. personnel in Iraq — are working on reconstruction programs.

State Department officials have complained privately that SIGIR spends millions of dollars investigating matters not directly related to its mandate. SIGIR, which reports directly to Congress and the departments of Defense and State, was established in 2004 to track the use of more than $52 billion in U.S. funding for Iraqi reconstruction projects. The office has published almost 200 reports since its inception and conducted more than 560 investigations involving the use of reconstruction funding.

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