U.S. force in Iraq is strong enough, Rumsfeld says

Defense secretary says commander there thinks it can deal with violence

April 06, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. military planners are drawing up contingency plans for sending more troops to Iraq, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that the top American military commander in the country reported he has a sufficient force to deal with the increased level of violence.

Rumsfeld said he spoke with Gen. John Abizaid, commanding officer of U.S. Central Command, and was assured that the 134,000 U.S. troops can quell the recent attacks on coalition forces and the demonstrations that have swept through the country from the Sunni Triangle to the Shiite cities in the south.

"He said we think we have about the right amount of forces. The number of things going on in that country right now we can do with the forces we have," Rumsfeld told reporters for The Sun and two other newspapers yesterday at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was addressing a meeting of senior naval officers.

Meanwhile, American military commanders in Iraq are fashioning contingency plans to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq because of the potential for more demonstrations and violence.

"We have asked the staff to at least take a look and see what forces are available out there in a quick-response mode, in the event they are needed," a senior Central Command official told reporters at the Pentagon in a video teleconference from Baghdad.

The official spoke on the condition he not be identified.

Still, the official cautioned that planners "don't believe" there will be a continued upsurge in violence "and we don't believe we're going to need any additional forces from the United States."

As U.S. troops move in and out of Iraq, the current level of 134,000 troops has created a temporary increase from the 120,000 American forces that were in the country in November.

Rumsfeld said Abizaid told him he was going to "take advantage" of those additional numbers to deal with the latest turmoil, from increased attacks on Americans in the Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad to deadly demonstrations staged by followers of a young and vehemently anti-coalition Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

The defense secretary said officials expect to stick with the plan to decrease U.S. force levels to 110,000 by May, though more troops would be sent if necessary.

The Shiite rioting in Baghdad and four other cities over the weekend killed eight U.S. soldiers, 52 Iraqis and a Salvadoran soldier.

Some lawmakers and defense analysts said the surge in violence could be the beginning of a wider conflict in the country, involving larger numbers of Sunnis and Shiites. But Rumsfeld brushed aside talk of a more troublesome security situation and continued to blame the problems on terrorist elements, remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and criminals.

"We've seen spikes up and down for the better part of a year," said Rumsfeld. "The overwhelming majority are interested in going forward. A relatively small fraction, how many I don't know, don't want to go forward."

Asked whether the Sunnis or Shiites constitute the greater problem, Rumsfeld said: "Well, I guess time will tell. We've got an awful lot of people who have not lived together in peace. They've lived together through brute force and killing" under Hussein.

"What you're seeing now is the tugs and pulls of a society that doesn't have someone killing 24,000 people a year to keep them in line."

Although the Central Command official called the Shiite violence "troublesome," Rumsfeld characterized al-Sadr as a lawbreaker and noted he and his followers were just one of many factions in the Shiite community. "This fellow is young, he has an army estimated at three, four, five thousand," said Rumsfeld. "The police have been interested in him for some time. He's broken many, many laws."

Coalition officials announced an arrest warrant against al-Sadr yesterday and noted that an Iraqi judge signed it some months ago. Over the weekend, al-Sadr called on his followers to "terrorize" those who are part of the American-led occupation. Asked why al-Sadr wasn't arrested earlier, Rumsfeld said: "This is an Iraqi process. There are lots of people who are important to get off the street."

Asked why al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" wasn't disbanded before it mounted the weekend attacks, Rumsfeld indicated that the cleric's personal militia expanded rapidly. "I could be wrong on this but the Mahdi Army has grown up in ... recent months and it was not over a long period," he said. "We're always worried about militias. In Afghanistan we worry about them. We worry about them in Iraq."

The Central Command official was more forceful, telling reporters that al-Sadr's call to violence "gives us more impetus to go after him and help the Iraqi security sector get him." As far as the Mahdi Army, "we need to deliberately go after the militia folks that are conducting these kinds of attacks and disarm them and take them apart." No timetable was offered.

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