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Generals Give Grim Report on Iraqi Strife

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Times Staff Writer

Two top U.S. military commanders provided Congress with their bleakest assessment yet of sectarian conflict in Iraq, acknowledging Thursday that security in the country had deteriorated markedly in the last six months.

In their first formal appraisal since March, the generals said U.S. forces needed to help stem the cycle of attacks and reprisals between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in Baghdad, a task they said would prevent a significant reduction in the number of American troops this year.

“Sectarian violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular,” said Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East. “If not stopped, it is possible that Iraq would move toward civil war.”

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U.S. officials have avoided characterizing the widespread violence as a civil war, which Abizaid has said would be the military’s worst-case scenario. But some Iraqis and others already consider the situation to be tantamount to an undeclared civil war between Shiite and Sunni Arab groups in which thousands have been killed, many execution-style, this year.

Abizaid and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they did not think an all-out civil war was likely. But their discussion of the possibility indicated the extent of the decline they had seen. In an appearance before the same Senate panel in March, Abizaid was far more confident that such strife could be avoided.

“I think that Iraq remains a long way from civil war,” he said at the time. “While we see very, very high tensions, it’s still not to the point where we see it moving toward civil war.”

Both military commanders told senators Thursday that the situation was worse than they thought it could become a year ago.

The generals’ blunt assessment comes as President Bush struggles with a growing list of foreign policy challenges -- in Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and Lebanon, among other places -- while working to keep his problems from tarnishing Republican prospects in November’s congressional elections.

Until Thursday, U.S. commanders had held out the possibility of troop reductions in Iraq before the end of the year.

Some in the military point to the February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra as the turning point at which sectarian warfare escalated.

The attack on the Shiite shrine was blamed on Sunnis and unleashed killings that have displaced more than 130,000 people. From May to mid-July, attacks by Sunnis and Shiites claimed the lives of more than 6,000 civilians, according to a United Nations study and Iraqi police reports.

Much of the violence has been in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki took office in May pledging to bolster control of the capital. But six weeks into his Baghdad security plan, which featured expanded Iraqi patrols and checkpoints, the violence had increased.

Officials view the operation as a failure, and the U.S. military is implementing a new strategy to stop the sectarian killing in Baghdad, moving about 3,700 American troops into the city and intensifying the U.S. presence in neighborhoods.

U.S. commanders hope a more visible American presence will deter sectarian death squads and allow economic development projects to be started.

But the new Baghdad initiative probably will come at a cost. Abizaid said that the enhanced U.S. presence in the capital probably would result in greater numbers of U.S. casualties and work against troop reductions.

“I think it’s possible that in the period ahead of us in Baghdad that we’ll take increased casualties,” Abizaid said. “It’s possible.”

He told senators he had just returned from a trip to Iraq and the Middle East.

“I’ve rarely seen it so unsettled or so volatile,” he said. “There’s an obvious struggle in the region between moderates and extremists that touches every aspect of life.”

Initially, only Pace and Abizaid were scheduled to appear before senators. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had declined, citing scheduling conflicts. After criticism from committee Democrats, however, Rumsfeld agreed to appear.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) pressed Abizaid, Pace and Rumsfeld.

Clinton listed mistakes she said the administration had made in Iraq. She said the U.S. force was too small to keep order, and she criticized the decision to disband the Iraqi army. She accused Rumsfeld of providing Congress with unrealistic assessments.

“We hear a lot of happy talk and rosy scenarios, but because of the administration’s strategic blunders and, frankly, the record of incompetence in executing, you are presiding over a failed policy,” Clinton said. “Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?”

While Clinton spoke, Rumsfeld stared at his legal pad, jotting notes with a pencil. When she finished, Rumsfeld stopped, looked up and said, “My goodness.”

He issued a point-by-point defense and insisted that he had not been overly positive about Iraq.

“I have never painted a rosy picture,” Rumsfeld said. “I have been very measured in my words. And you’d have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I’ve been excessively optimistic.”

Clinton later said in an interview with the Associated Press that Rumsfeld should resign, echoing calls from retired military officers and administration critics.

McCain took issue with the new U.S. strategy for Baghdad, saying he worried that the U.S. was simply moving its troops from hot spot to hot spot, potentially jeopardizing gains that American forces have made in Sunni Arab cities such as Fallouja.

“What I worry about is we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole here,” McCain said.

Rumsfeld argued that the U.S. needed to continue its effort in Iraq, and he urged Congress to resist calls to set a deadline for pulling troops out of the country.

Pace and Abizaid said the Iraqi government remained the bulwark against a civil war. Abizaid said Maliki was committed to a unified country, and he said he thought the Iraqi military would be able to protect residents and hold the country together.

But Abizaid acknowledged that many of the local and national police units in Iraq had been taken over by militias and did not owe their primary allegiance to the government. He said he thought that about 30% of the national police battalions should be taken off duty and retrained, presumably to ensure their loyalty to the national government.

Under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Abizaid said he thought Iraq would begin to move toward balance in the next five years.

“I’m confident that the Iraqi security forces, with good governance coupled together, will bring the country toward equilibrium, because the alternative is so stark,” he said.


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