Friday, August 04, 2006
U.S. Generals See Growing Threat of Civil War in Iraq
By DAVID STOUT
WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 — Two senior American military commanders said today that the wave of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq has heightened the danger that the country will slide into all-out civil war.
“I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war,” Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of United States forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A similarly sobering assessment was offered by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he can envision the present situation “devolving to a civil war.”
“But that does not have to be a fact,” General Pace added. In the long run, he said, peace in Iraq depends not just on American forces helping the Iraqis secure their own country but on Iraqis of different heritages deciding that they “love their children more than they hate each other.”
General Abizaid, too, said he remained hopeful. “Am I optimistic whether or not Iraqi forces, with our support, with the backing of the Iraqi government, can prevent the slide to civil war?” he asked rhetorically. “My answer is yes, I’m optimistic that the slide can be prevented.”
But the tone of the hearing, coinciding as it did with the continuing carnage in Iraq and the Israeli conflict with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, was not one of optimism. Nothing in the testimony of the commanders, or in that of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, pointed to an early withdrawal of United States forces.
“We can persevere in Iraq, or we can withdraw prematurely, until they force us to make a stand nearer home,” said Mr. Rumsfeld, appearing before the panel after sharp criticism of his earlier intention not to go to Capitol Hill. “But make no mistake: they’re not going to give up whether we acquiesce in their immediate demands or not.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said, as he has many times before, that the possibility of pulling out some American troops depended on the judgment of ground commanders. He counseled patience, from the lawmakers and their constituents. “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 who try to kill everyone that they cannot convert, and to tear down what they could never build,” he said.
General Pace sounded the same theme: “Our enemy knows they cannot defeat us in battle. They do believe, however, that they can wear down our will as a nation.”
But the committee chairman, Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, signaled that political support for the conflict could be fraying. “I think we have to examine very carefully what Congress authorized the president to do in the context of a situation if we’re faced with all-out civil war and whether we have to come back to the Congress to get further indication of support,” Mr. Warner said.
When General Abizaid was asked about the prospects for reducing American forces in Iraq by the end of the year, he replied, “It’s possible, depending on how things go in Baghdad and how Prime Minister Maliki and his government grab a hold of the security situation.” The general said he was confident that the Iraqis understood that the United States military commitment to Iraq was not open-ended.
In any event, Mr. Rumsfeld said it was difficult to gauge the ideal number of troops the United States and its allies should have in Iraq. Too many troops, and the Iraqis would see them as occupiers, leading to more unrest. To few, and the violence could spiral out of control. “There’s no rulebook,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
The valor and sacrifice of America’s sons and daughters serving in Iraq was praised by Senator Warner and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, along with other panel members.
But the session was full of sharp, and occasionally angry, exchanges. For instance, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, accused Mr. Rumsfeld of being inconsistent over the months in his assessment of the military situation.
“Senator, I don’t think that’s true,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, declaring that the senator would have “a dickens of a time” documenting her assertion that he had been overly optimistic in the past. But Senator Clinton did not back down, and she said she would introduce evidence of her assertion into the committee record.
And Senator John S. McCain, Republican of Arizona, who is a firm supporter of the campaign in Iraq, voiced concern about the effects of shifting of United States troops into Baghdad, thereby lessening troop strength elsewhere. “What I worry about is, we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole here,” the senator said.
Mr. McCain had pointed exchanges with both generals, who conceded that events had taken them by surprise.
“General Pace,” the senator said, you said there’s a possibility of the situation in Iraq evolving into civil war. Is that correct?”
“I did say that, yes, sir,” the general replied.
“Did you anticipate this situation a year ago?”
“Did you, General Abizaid?”
“I believe that a year ago it was clear to see that sectarian tensions were increasing,” General Abizaid said. “That they would be this high, no.”
The general gave a positive evaluation of the 275,000 members of the Iraqi police, border security and military forces who had completed training. “They are much improved, and they continue to improve every month,” he said.
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who graduated from West Point and served in the Army for 12 years, said that under Mr. Rumsfeld’s tenure the Army had been stretched beyond its capacity, a situation he called “a stunning indictment of your leadership.”
“It think it’s an inaccurate statement,” Mr. Rumsfeld shot back, going on to say that the situation was more complicated than Mr. Reed had suggested.