Report questions safety of U.S. diplomats in Iraq

WASHINGTON — American diplomats and other mission employees may not be safe in Iraq if the U.S. military withdraws its remaining 50,000 troops and leaves the volatile country at the end of the year as planned, according to a new Senate report released Tuesday.

The report by the Foreign Relations Committee puts new pressure on a delicate diplomacy between Washington and Baghdad to decide what future role American troops will have in Iraq — if one at all — before they start withdrawing this summer.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the committee, called Iraq "our new forgotten war."

"While Afghanistan and Iran and now Egypt continues to demand our attention, Iraq's importance to the long-term stability of the Middle East cannot be underestimated," Kerry said.

At least 159 Iraqi civilians and 100 police and soldiers were killed in insurgent attacks in January — the deadliest month for Iraq since September, according to data released Tuesday by security and health ministry officials in Baghdad.

An Associated Press count of Iraqis killed in attacks over two weeks alone puts the death toll at more than 200.

"The situation in Iraq is at a critical juncture," concluded the report, issued a few hours before Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. military in Iraq, testified before the Democratic-led Senate panel.

"Terrorist and insurgent groups are less active but still adept, the Iraqi army continues to develop but is not yet capable of deterring regional actors, and strong ethnic tensions remain along Iraq's disputed internal boundaries," the report said. "Although a government has finally been formed, it remains to be seen how cohesive and stable it will be."

The report mostly focuses on protecting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and its four satellite offices around Iraq after the planned Dec. 31 withdrawal, a deadline required under a security agreement between the two countries.