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Lawmakers cautious about Iraqi transfer

Security, U.S. troops remain concerns

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawmakers on Monday hailed the transfer of power in Iraq as a positive step toward democracy, but they also pointed out the security situation in the country remains unstable and emphasized that U.S. work in that country is unfinished.

House members and senators from both major parties praised the faster-than-expected transfer. But there was a difference in emphasis as Democrats and Republicans weighed in on the importance of the Iraqi interim government and the exit of U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer.

Republicans generally focused on the transfer itself, proclaiming it evidence of progress in the country, which is rebuilding from a U.S.-led invasion last year that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. In their statements, Democrats underscored the work that remains and pointed out that roughly 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq with no withdrawal date in sight .

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, called the transfer of power more than a simple exchange of "a piece of paper."

"Today, the hopes and dreams of millions of Iraqis are closer to becoming an everyday reality -- a free, democratic government is literally at hand," Hastert said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, offered similar comments.

"For too long, Iraqi families have lived in the face of fear, tyranny and despair," he said. "Today they begin the journey to freedom. My congratulations go out to all Iraqis as they begin this new chapter in their history -- the support of the world is with them today and in the future."

But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, in a statement typical of many Democrats, emphasized the tasks that remain in Iraq, where insurgents have violently fought the U.S. occupation, killing members of the armed forces and civilians.

"While we transferred sovereignty today, we need to be honest with the American people that this struggle is far from over," Rockefeller said. "Security in Iraq is worse now than it was right after the fall of Baghdad and may deteriorate further. The Iraqi security forces cannot handle the challenge alone, reconstruction has barely started, and massive unemployment has left many frustrated and even desperate."

And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, stressed the costs of the war and reconstruction.

"As we wish the members of the interim government well in the undertaking that will require so much of our attention and assistance in the coming months, it is also appropriate to reflect on the costs of the war thus far in lives lost and wounds suffered, and in the billions of dollars spent," Pelosi said. "The sacrifices of the dead, the wounded, and their families, must always be in our thoughts as we take stock of what may be achieved and at what cost."

The words of caution were not strictly partisan.

For example, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described a challenging role for the United States -- maintaining security in that country, while allowing the Iraqi people to determine their own future.

"It cannot be seen as a puppet of the United States because if it is, then we will run the risk of losing Iraq," Hagel said of the interim government. "In the end, it is the Iraqi people that will make the decisions."

Congressional scrutiny of U.S. policy in Iraq has intensified since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in May 2003. While Bush won broad, bipartisan force to invade Iraq, Democrats have grown increasingly critical of his policies, saying he underestimated the difficulty of rebuilding the country, alienated allies and failed to appreciate the depth of antipathy toward the United States by some elements of the country.

Those criticism are playing out against the backdrop of a presidential election campaign. Bush is up for re-election in November, when he will likely face Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

For his part, Kerry called on Bush to do a better job of getting "real support" from other nations for the rebuilding of Iraq.

"Ninety percent of the coalition on the ground is American, 90 percent," Kerry told reporters in Maryland, where he was campaigning. " And 90 percent of the cost is being borne by the American people."

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