No cut in U.S. troops in Iraq

Top commander who had forecast reduction now sees a possible increase

September 20, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- In a sharp reversal of earlier estimates, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East said yesterday that worsening sectarian violence will require American force levels in Iraq to remain at or above the current level well into next year.

In a sober new military assessment, Gen. John Abizaid said that worsening sectarian violence in Iraq had forced him to revise his estimate of six months ago that significant troop reductions would be under way by now. Instead, he said, the current level of 147,000 American troops "will probably have to be sustained through the spring, and then we will re-evaluate."

Abizaid said, "We will bring in more forces if we have to."

An Arabic-speaking infantry officer who has led the U.S. Central Command since July 2003, Abizaid acknowledged at a meeting with military reporters yesterday that increasing attacks by Taliban forces in Afghanistan have set back progress there as well. Currently, 21,000 U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan, alongside about 20,000 soldiers from NATO countries.

But Abizaid bristled at the suggestion that the violence spreading across the region requires a commitment of even more troops.

"Where would you like to get them from?" he demanded, alluding to the struggle by the Army and Marine Corps to provide enough troops at current levels for Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the Army's 494,000 active-duty soldiers, for instance - like Abizaid's son-in-law - have already served one combat tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and are preparing to go back for a third 12-month tour.

If conditions in Iraq allow for a U.S. troop reduction before next spring, Abizaid promised, "We will do that."

Abizaid's grim prognosis echoed a Pentagon report earlier this month that detailed a deepening pattern of fighting between Shiite and Sunni death squads and militias, not only in Baghdad but spreading north and south of the capital. To counter the apparent slide toward civil war, in late July President Bush announced a major shift of U.S. forces in Iraq, ordering the redeployment of units from outlying areas into Baghdad.

But Abizaid acknowledged that the intensified focus on Baghdad, where American troops have been working neighborhood by neighborhood to hunt down violent extremists, did not achieve the effect "we had hoped for."

He said the sectarian violence in Baghdad, "if left unchecked, could be fatal to Iraq. ... There is a lot of work to be done, and the center of the problem is Baghdad, the area where we have got to expend the most military effort."

Abizaid said that, among other difficulties, U.S. military officers have recently found a lethal new weapon in the hands of insurgents: an Iranian-made version of the ubiquitous RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launcher that carries two warheads instead of one, enabling it to penetrate "most armored vehicles. ... You will forgive me for not saying how effective it is against ours."

U.S. military operations in Baghdad, including infantry street patrols and Special Forces commando raids, are being coordinated with Iraqi army units, with U.S. Army soldiers "embedded" to give tactical advice and coordinate with U.S. ground combat units, while U.S. strike fighters provide close air support.

Abizaid said Monday that this approach had worked well against al-Qaida cells in Baghdad, but less well against splinter groups of the Shiite militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, which is under control of the popular Shiite cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr.

He acknowledged that "bodies are piling up" in Baghdad. But he contended that the violence has abated in neighborhoods where American troops have established a presence.

"We are not everywhere in Baghdad. We are very methodically going through neighborhood by neighborhood, and in neighborhoods that we have been in and that we are currently staying in, or that Iraqi troops are currently staying in, the situation has improved," Abizaid said.

Answering critics demanding that President Bush send more U.S. troops to quash the violence in Iraq, Abizaid argued that a large American presence can backfire. Each time American forces move into a region for a military operation, "it creates a dynamic where the Iraqi troops do less," which sets back the U.S. goal of having the Iraqis take over security.

`'It's very important that Iraqi forces take responsibility for military operations in their own country," he said, adding that the American public should have the patience to let that happen.

"You have to trust the people in the region to want this more than we do," he said.

But he emphasized that "no military effort is going to be successful" unless the Iraqi government exerts more political control, building effective defense and interior ministries and reforming the Iraqi national police force, which is said to be heavily infiltrated by sectarian militia fighters.

The Pentagon, in its Sept. 1 report to Congress, acknowledged pervasive problems in the national Iraqi government that was finally put in place in June, after a national referendum on Iraq's new Constitution and national elections last year. The Pentagon report said government corruption has impeded progress on many economic and development projects and it will take "years" before Iraq's government can function effectively.

One immediate outcome is the government's inability or unwillingness to disarm the private militias that are provoking much of the fear and violence in Baghdad, U.S. officials have said.

All these problems suggest that American combat forces will have an enduring role in Iraq and throughout the region, Abizaid suggested.

"It's important that the American force as a whole be managed in such a manner that it can deal with the military problem in Iraq and Afghanistan - and unforeseen problems that might arise, for example, from Iran," he said.

david.wood@baltsun.com

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