General warns Congress: Don't pull out troops

U.S. Mideast commander sent 2,000 Marines to Anbar

November 16, 2006|By DAVID WOOD | DAVID WOOD,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON --Two thousand combat Marines are on their way to Iraq's violent Anbar province to reinforce U.S. troops, dispatched there by Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, who warned a skeptical Congress yesterday against a phased withdrawal of American combat forces.

Despite a gloomy new intelligence assessment on Iraq that critics said proves the need for a strategy shift, Abizaid endorsed the current course, asking for an additional "four to six months" to continue training Iraqi forces and to allow Iraq's central government to crack down on sectarian militias and death squads operating brazenly in Baghdad and elsewhere.

He insisted to the Senate Armed Services Committee that with a little more patience, "we can win" in Iraq - an assertion that drew responses ranging from skepticism to hostility from both Republicans and the Democrats who will take control of the committee in January.

Meantime, he told the committee that the current U.S. military presence in Iraq of 141,000 should remain stable or increase slightly with additional U.S. combat advisers who are being embedded with Iraqi army and police units.

The four-star Army general, who has held command for almost four years during a deteriorating situation in Iraq, spent the day on Capitol Hill defending the U.S. approach to the war championed by President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top military commanders but repudiated by American voters this month.

In the aftermath of the elections that swept Republicans from power in both the House and Senate, Bush dismissed Rumsfeld and promised "fresh thinking" on Iraq war strategy.

While the Bush administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are pursuing separate reviews of the strategy, there was little sign of any strategic shift from Abizaid. He argued that announcing a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops would ignite even more sectarian violence as Shiite and Sunni militias fought for control of the streets, while adding to American forces would discourage the Iraqi government from taking charge.

"Basically, you are advocating the status quo here today, which I think the American people in the last election said is not an acceptable condition," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a likely GOP presidential candidate in 2008.

"I respect you enormously," McCain told Abizaid, who was perspiring heavily under the TV lights and intense questioning. "I regret deeply that you seem to think that the status quo and the rate of progress we are making are acceptable. Most Americans do not."

Another presumptive 2008 presidential candidate, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, referred acidly to Abizaid's assurances that the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki would eventually assert its control. "Hope is not a strategy," she said.

"I agree with you," Abizaid shot back. "I would also say that despair is not a method. And when I come to Washington, I feel despair."

Even Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who will relinquish the committee to Michigan Sen. Carl Levin in January, remarked sourly that within a few days, the war in Iraq will have gone on longer than World War II.

After four years, Warner said, "we are still confronted with an extraordinary situation of civil disruption [and] the inability of the government to fully exercise the reins of sovereignty. How do you explain that in simple terms to the American people?"

Repeating that he has confidence that the Iraqi army is "up to the job" of disarming the militias, Abizaid acknowledged that "that has yet to be demonstrated."

Moreover, he said that even after the Pentagon has nearly completed its "train and equip" program, Iraqi units are short of heavy weapons, trucks and other equipment, and that not one single Iraqi army battalion is capable of operating independently, without American combat advisers and combat support.

Abizaid acknowledged under sharp questioning that Anbar province west of Baghdad - the Sunni-dominated region that includes Fallujah and Ramadi - "is not under control." He said he has directed a Marine expeditionary unit to Anbar. Marine Corps officials later identified the unit as the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has been on exercises in Kuwait.

Anbar, where the Sunni insurgency has "gained strength and capacity" in recent months, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, has been the scene of heavy fighting this fall. The U.S. command in Baghdad announced yesterday that an additional four Americans - three Marines and a soldier - have been killed there. No further details were released.

Despite these problems, Abizaid said the Iraqis "have it in them. They can forge one country. They can overcome these problems ... and I believe we must stick with them until such time that they show us that they can't do it."

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