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General: Middle East goes as Iraq goes

June 25, 2010 at 2:51 PM

WASHINGTON, June 25 (UPI) -- A stable and self-reliant Iraq is essential to stability in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, a top military commander told U.S. lawmakers.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in his confirmation hearing to take over command of U.S. forces in Iraq from Army Gen. Ray Odierno.

Austin told the Senate that the future of Iraq is inseparable from the future of the Middle East.

"A sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq will contribute to the stability in the region and will be a major ally in our fight against al-Qaida and its extremist allies," he said in a statement provided by the Pentagon.

The general said that despite significant improvements in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there were still elements that threatened to undermine a democratic government in Iraq.

"Ethno-sectarian tensions continue to impede a unified national vision for all Iraqis," he said.

Iraq is still without a government more than three months after parliamentary elections. U.S. combat forces, meanwhile, are scheduled to draw down beginning in August.

"During this transition period, our forces would continue to advise and train the Iraqi forces, to develop their security capabilities and support their ability to protect the Iraqi people," said Austin.

Austin would become a four-star general and take over for Odierno if confirmed. Odierno was nominated to lead U.S. Joint Forces Command.

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