U.S. role in an Iraq civil war uncertain

Top generals tell senators no change in strategy planned


WASHINGTON -- Top U.S. military commanders warned yesterday that the recent explosion of sectarian killing in Baghdad could drive Iraq into civil war with increased American casualties, but they said there will be no change in U.S. strategy and no troop withdrawals in the near future.

Under sharp prodding from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, could not say what the U.S. military role in Iraq would be if that country slides into unrestrained civil war.

They also offered no details of a U.S. strategy for disarming Shiite and Sunni militias that have been marauding through Baghdad, often in the uniforms and vehicles of Iraqi security forces.

The generals, together with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, were staunch in turning aside calls for phased U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Such a withdrawal, polls show, is backed by increasing numbers of Americans and a demand that will be a centerpiece of many campaigns in this fall's elections.

"Americans didn't cross oceans and settle a wilderness and build history's greatest democracy only to run away from a bunch of murderers and extremists," Rumsfeld told the panel.

He acknowledged that, with Iran balking at international demands to halt its nuclear program, resurgent Taliban forces on the attack in Afghanistan and the war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon further polarizing the region, U.S. interests are at risk as never before.

"It's a difficult and delicate situation," he said, a sentiment echoed by Abizaid, who has spent much of his career in the Middle East.

"I've rarely seen it so unsettled or volatile," said Abizaid, who assumed his current command in 2003. In Iraq, he said, "sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it in Baghdad in particular, and if it is not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

The responsibility for avoiding civil war, the generals said, rests with the Iraqis themselves, not U.S. troops. Abizaid and Pace said that disarming the militias is primarily a political problem and that U.S forces would help only with basic security.

Knitting together Iraqi society, empowering reconciliation and ending the violence are the responsibility of the Iraqi people, according to Pace.

"[Shiite] and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other," he said.

U.S. commanders agreed last week to send more than 3,500 American troops into Baghdad to help quell the rising violence, shifting troops from other parts of Iraq in what Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called "a game of whack-a-mole."

Abizaid said it is "possible" that "we will take increased casualties" as troops pour into the violence-racked capital, but he insisted their job would be only to support Iraqi troops.

One of Baghdad's most violent militias, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, under the control of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has become infiltrated by paid Iranian agents, Abizaid said. Some of al-Sadr's followers occupy senior posts in the Iraq government, leading Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island to wonder how the government would crack down on the Mahdi army.

"Well, I believe the prime minister and his government will ... do what has to be done," Abizaid said.

With militias infiltrating deeply into Iraq's new security forces, some analysts questioned whether it makes sense for the United States to pin its hopes on expanding and arming those forces so that American troops ultimately can come home.

Arming local government forces only makes sense when there already is a strong central government, said Steven Biddle, a senior strategist at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former fellow at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

When security forces themselves are riven by ethnic loyalties, strengthening their numbers and equipping and arming them "in many ways makes the problem worse, not better," Biddle said. "The Iraqi government is not viewed by the average person in the street as a disinterested national institution but as a tool of the Shiite majority."

Abizaid, asked about infiltration of Iraqi security forces by militia fighters, reported that one-third of the Iraqi national police units are so infested with sectarian fighters loyal to religious leaders that these units will have to be disbanded and retrained.

Abizaid also acknowledged that some elements of the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia are "under the pay of the Iranian government."

Other analysts took sharp exception to the idea that this process should be left to the Iraqis.

"It is absolutely essential that the militias be demobilized, and the U.S. Army Special Forces have trained on this for decades," said Kalev "Gunner" Sepp, a retired Special Forces officer who teaches at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., where he is a counterinsurgency specialist.

Sepp, who has served two tours in Iraq as an adviser to the U.S. military command, said the growth of the militias and their infiltration into the Iraqi security forces came as the United States rushed to expand the Iraqi security forces to take over from American troops.

"There was an uncontrolled issuance of uniforms and weapons to almost anybody who asked for them," Sepp said.

What needs to be done now, he said, is clear: Disarm the militias and provide job training or security jobs to those who qualify.

"The execution is extraordinarily difficult, because of the infiltration by Sunni resistance forces, by Iranians and by others under the control of radical imams and extremist political leaders," he said.

Some of it, Sepp said, will have to be done `'at gunpoint."

"Nothing that occurs in as difficult a place as the Iraqi insurgency is going to be settled simply by signed agreements or handshakes," he said.


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