General now has doubts on Iraq

Top officer sees nation at critical juncture for prosperity or civil war


The United States' top military officer said last night that Iraq is at a critical juncture that could yield prosperity or could devolve into civil war, amounting to perhaps his gloomiest assessment to date.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Iraq "a place that is having some real difficulties right now" and said the country's direction will likely be determined by how it emerges from those difficulties. His comments, offered during an address to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, were a clear retreat from his statement a week ago that the war is "going very, very well."

"The Iraqi people themselves are standing at a crossroads, and they are making critical decisions for their country right now about which road they'll take," Pace said in a speech at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

"Everything is in place if they want to have a civil war," he said. "Everything is also in place if they want to have a united, unified future."

Pace spoke at the end of a day during which President Bush twice used the term "civil war" in a speech about Iraq, though only to describe the objectives of insurgents, supporters of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida members, not to characterize the current state of events. Like his top general, Bush acknowledged that the conflict that began three years ago with the U.S.-led invasion to topple Hussein had taken a turn toward sectarian violence.

"I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth," Bush said in a speech before the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an institute created after the Sept. 11 attacks that has been supportive of Bush's agenda. "It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle, and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come."

Attacks against police and civilians killed 30 people in Iraq yesterday, and militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr criticized American and Iraqi leaders for not stopping the violence. The killings came a day after bombs and mortar fire killed at least 52 people and wounded hundreds in Baghdad's sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City.

On `civil war'

Bush and Pace acknowledged the heightened tension in Iraq, with Bush describing last month's attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra as "a clear attempt to ignite a civil war." But Pace said he is encouraged that Iraqi leaders have reacted to the violence by calling for peace.

"What we've seen so far since the bombing of the golden dome is that Iraqi people -- Kurds, Shia, Sunni -- their elected leaders and their religious leaders, have all said, `We don't want to go down the civil war road.'

"Most are calling for calm," Pace said, though adding quickly, "This is not to put a huge smiley face on things."

Pace, a Marine Corps general who became the nation's top military commander in September, backtracked from his comments during an interview March 5 on the NBC program Meet the Press. Asked by host Tim Russert whether things in Iraq were going well or badly, Pace replied: "I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at."

Yesterday, he said that assessment "didn't come across as precisely as I would have liked."

"What I meant to say was, they're going very well in freeing up the police and freeing up the armed forces, in leaders in the country calling for calm. I simply did not mean it to mean that at that moment in time that the country was fine."

`A lot of work to do'

"There's still a lot of work to do," Pace added. "But we cannot be defeated militarily, nor can the Iraqi people get to their future through force of arms. We, the military and police, the U.S. coalition and, most importantly, Iraqis can provide stability so the elected government in Iraq can begin to provide the kinds of services that allow the Iraqi people to believe that their future under an elected government is going to be better."

The president's speech, the first of a new series of speeches leading up to the three-year anniversary of the war, comes at a moment when his aides are concerned both by the acceleration of sectarian violence and by Americans' fast-ebbing support for the war. Among those who have amplified their calls for a stepped-up withdrawal are some conservatives who have argued that Bush's main task -- the liberation of Iraq -- is complete.

But Bush did not back away from the standards he set last year for measuring when the time is right to begin withdrawing, saying that the Iraqi government must be prepared to defend itself.

"We can expect the enemy will try again, and they will continue to sow violence and destruction designed to stop the emergence of a free and democratic Iraq," he said.

The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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