Trouble in Iraq played down

September 13, 2006|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Julian E. Barnes | Patrick J. McDonnell and Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. fight against a raging insurgency in western Iraq is not a lost cause despite a gloomy military intelligence report that casts doubt on repeated assertions of progress in the besieged region, the top general in the zone said yesterday.

"I think we are winning this war," Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer told reporters in an unusual telephone news briefing. "We are certainly accomplishing our mission. We are out here to develop the Iraqi security forces."

While repeatedly citing "progress," the general acknowledged that two key objectives - training Iraqi forces and establishing a functioning government - still lagged in the vast, strategically vital Anbar province.

"In both cases, we are not where we intended to be," Zilmer said, speaking from Marine headquarters in Fallujah, west of the Iraqi capital. "We are not in our end state yet."

The general was called in to rebut reports, first published this week in The Washington Post, that a secret Marine intelligence assessment last month had concluded that the prospects for securing Anbar were dim. The province covers nearly one-third of Iraq.

Word of the glum intelligence finding came as the Bush administration was trying to put the best face possible on the war before midterm elections and amid a major offensive in Baghdad deemed crucial to any eventual U.S. success here. The strikingly frank findings by the top Marine intelligence officer in the region, which have not been released publicly, are said to have unsettled U.S. policymakers and top brass at the Pentagon.

Zilmer did not dispute the intelligence appraisal: "I have seen that report, and I do concur with that assessment." However, he argued that it had been misinterpreted in media accounts.

"It was not intended to address the positive effects coalition and Iraqi forces have achieved on the security environment over the past years," the general said in a statement also released yesterday.

It was unclear if the report cited a lack of military force in the huge region, where some 30,000 U.S. troops now work alongside about 13,000 American-trained Iraqi soldiers and 6,400 Iraqi policemen. But the general, echoing the view of other senior U.S. commanders, insisted that he had sufficient U.S. personnel to do the job in an area that encompasses much of the so-called "Sunni Triangle" and insurgent strongholds such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Haditha.

Some U.S. critics have argued that the Bush administration's plan for Iraq has suffered from a lack of troops from the time of the invasion in March 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. But Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top officials have insisted that troop strength was sufficient to defeat the Iraqi insurgency and bring a stable government to war-torn Iraq.

Anbar, with its immense open spaces, palm-fringed Euphrates River valley villages and long borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, has been a hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency since shortly after the invasion. It is considered the Sunni heartland, and its residents have been hostile to the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government that came to power after the fall of Hussein, a Sunni who suppressed the nation's Shiite majority.

Patrick J. McDonnell and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.

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