The top U.S. military official said on Wednesday that he worried that Iraq's political paralysis was threatening its recent security gains, highlighting Washington's growing fears that Iraq's inability to form a new government could trigger a new outbreak of violence.
"I'm extremely concerned about their inability to stand up this government," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. "The politics there are from my perspective too slow ... and the longer that lasts, the more I and others worry about what does the future hold."
Iraq has faded from the front pages of the nation's newspapers as U.S. troops leave the country as part of the Obama administration's push to wind down the war. There are 50,000 American troops in Iraq, barely a quarter of the levels reached during the 2007-08 troop "surge" that helped end the country's civil war and sharply reduced its once-endemic violence.
Attention in official Washington has instead begun to focus almost exclusively on the intensifying war in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. reinforcements have arrived in recent months. After years of being the forgotten war, Afghanistan is now the main American military focus, with many officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill arguing that the U.S. has effectively won in Iraq and can now safely leave the country.
But a countervailing view is taking root among many within the military, which worries that Iraq's failure to form a new government is threatening to unravel the country's security and economic improvements.
Earlier Wednesday, the top American military commander for Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Rob Baker, said the political stalemate was sparking new violence and leading ordinary Iraqis to reduce their security cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi forces, the Associated Press reported.
Millions of Iraqi voters braved the threat of insurgent violence to cast ballots for a new parliament earlier this year, but neither of the country's two leading political blocs won the 163-seat majority necessary to form a new government. The Iraqiya bloc led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 91 seats, narrowly surpassing a slate led by the incumbent premier, Nouri al-Maliki, which won 89 seats.
The two sides have spent more than seven months engaged in on-again, off-again talks about either forming a coalition government or standing aside so one of them could try to assemble a coalition with other political blocs. So far, there has been little to no discernible progress toward a deal.
Allawi, for instance, used a visit to Syria to reiterate Wednesday that he would not serve in any coalition government led by Maliki, a sign of the growing sniping between the two rivals.
"Regretfully, there is a determination to confiscate the will of the Iraqi people and prevent the Iraqiya bloc from ascending to power," Allawi said in a news conference in Damascus.
Mullen, for his part, said the U.S. had lost more than 3,400 military personnel to give Iraqis a chance for a better future, and said he was concerned that chance could be squandered by the infighting.
"There is a great opportunity for the political leadership and the Iraqi people that is there as a result of these sacrifices," Mullen said. "I just hope they take it."