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DIPLOMAT SAYS IRAQ EXIT ISON TRACK

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The U.S. ambassador to Iraq told Congress Thursday that despite a recent rash of insurgent attacks, the United States is on schedule to remove all combat forces by August.

"We are holding to this timetable," Christopher Hill told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in his first congressional testimony since taking over the top U.S. diplomatic post in Baghdad in April.

Lawmakers were skeptical, concerned that despite a general downtrend in violence, Iraqi forces may not be ready next year to maintain security.

Hill said he is encouraged that the recent violence, including bombings of the Iraqi finance and foreign ministries Aug. 19 that killed about 100 people, has failed to push Iraq back to the brink of civil war.

"The bombings in recent months show that we still have to deal with al-Qaida in Iraq that tries to rekindle violence," he said. "To the great credit of the Iraqi people, however, they have not risen to the bait."

Under a plan he announced shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama has set August 2010 as a deadline for removing all U.S. combat forces. A separate agreement with Iraq, reached by Obama's predecessor, requires a complete U.S. withdrawal - including noncombat military forces - by the end of 2011.

Bomber kills 25: A man driving a truck laden with explosives plowed his vehicle into the Kurdish village of Wardek in northern Iraq before dawn Thursday, killing 25 people, wounding 43 and wrecking dozens of houses, officials said. A second explosives-laden truck followed the first, but security forces managed to kill the driver before he detonated his load.

Shoe-thrower to be freed: Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the television reporter who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush, is to be released Monday after nine months in prison. Parties and music are planned at his family's home in Baghdad, and relatives said Zeidi might use his new iconic status in Iraq to promote humanitarian causes.

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