Abizaid sees Iraq leading war

Nation's forces expected to take over from coalition this year, U.S. general says

March 02, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The top U.S. commander in the Middle East said that he expects Iraqi security forces to take the lead from the U.S.-led coalition in fighting the stubborn and deadly insurgency throughout most of the country later this year, despite widely differing estimates on the quality and quantity of those forces.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, did not put a precise date on when the Iraqis would shoulder most of the security burden and acknowledged that Iraqi soldiers and police face hurdles in training, equipment and leadership.

"I believe that in 2005, the most important statement we should be able to make is that in the majority of the country, Iraqi security forces will take the lead in fighting the counterinsurgency. That's our goal," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And I think in 2005 they'll take on the majority of tasks that need to be done."

Abizaid quickly added, "Will they be able to do that in the toughest areas? It remains to be seen. Perhaps. We'll have to see."

Defense officials have generally offered vague estimates of when the Iraqis would take control of their own security. Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the same committee that he expected Iraqis to assume more and more responsibility, "but I couldn't even begin to estimate where we would be by the end of the year."

Pentagon officials have long said that the "exit strategy" for U.S. forces in Iraq, which number some 150,000 soldiers and Marines, is for the Iraqi security forces to be able to take the lead in fighting the insurgency, a mix of former Saddam Hussein loyalists, criminals and Muslim fundamentalists.

The four-star officer warned that threats could re-emerge inside Iraq.

"We have yet to see the end to [Muqtada al-] Sadr's challenge," Abizaid said, referring to the rebel cleric who signed a truce last fall with Iraqi officials after a bloody standoff with his Shiite Muslim forces in the holy city of Najaf. "It's possible he could come out and challenge in a violent way the new government."

Abizaid also said there is a danger that the insurgency could be "reinforced by foreign fighters for different reasons."

A month ago, Pentagon officials acknowledged that only 40,000 of Iraq's 136,000 soldiers and police are considered sufficiently trained and able to confront any security threat in their country. Shortly thereafter, officials acknowledged that 89 of the 90 battalions of Iraq's army and its national guard - as many as 40,000 soldiers - "are lightly equipped and armed and have very limited mobility and sustainment activities."

Abizaid estimated that some 90 Iraqi battalions - units that range from 300 to 450 soldiers - are "capable of moving around."

"But are they capable of fighting alone against the insurgency and winning now? The answer is no. But they will be," said Abizaid. The general said that some funds from the proposed $80 billion supplemental budget for Iraq and Afghanistan will be used to equip the Iraqi forces.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, asked Abizaid what measurement could be used to determine whether the U.S. forces are defeating the insurgency.

"The most important metric," said Abizaid, is the creation of a loyal and capable Iraqi chain of command that extends from the Iraqi head of state down to the fighting units.

Abizaid said that success should be judged on whether Iraqi security forces go into an area and, on their own, start to defeat the insurgents. "Where that starts to happen, place by place, step by step, that's when we'll win the insurgency, and it'll take a long time," he said.

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