Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said yesterday that the strength of the Iraqi insurgency is waning as a result of momentum from elections, and he predicted Iraqi security forces would be leading the fight against insurgents in most of Iraq by the end of 2005.
While acknowledging that Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency gained intensity from November through January compared with the previous year, Abizaid told a Senate panel that the insurgents' failure to disrupt Jan. 30 elections marked a turning point and indicated declining popular support.
Insurgents fielded only "around 3,500" fighters on election day, he said, citing U.S. intelligence estimates. Earlier U.S. intelligence had put the number of core Iraqi and foreign fighters at as many as 20,000.
"Why didn't they put more people in the field? Where were they?" Abizaid asked in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "They threw their whole force at us, and yet they were unable to disturb the elections. I think that the voting in Iraq, the political process that's going on . . . have driven those numbers [of insurgents] down."
Abizaid's remarks came in a relatively upbeat assessment of the war in Iraq and political progress elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, where he oversees American forces as head of U.S. Central Command. His comments were somewhat unusual because other senior U.S. defense and military officials have been reluctant in recent weeks to quantify the Iraqi insurgency, despite questioning from Congress.
Still, Abizaid warned that the insurgency tends to ebb and flow from region to region depending on political events and military offensives -- and he said more violence is inevitable. For example, he said the militia led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr could stage another offensive against the U.S.-led coalition. "We have not seen the end of Muqtada Sadr's challenge," he said. Iran continues to play an "unhelpful role" by backing Sadr while conducting "intelligence activities" in Iraq, he added.
Moreover, he said foreign fighters flowing across the border into Iraq from Syria remain a threat that the Syrian government has not done enough to stop, despite its handover to Iraqi officials in recent days of Saddam Hussein's half-brother. While "there appears to be some change of attitude" by Damascus, he said, Syria remains "very unhelpful" in curbing the infiltration of fighters.
Lawmakers echoed the need to maintain pressure on the Syrian government to play a constructive role in Iraq. "Our government is very firm in its warnings to Syria . . . particularly in allowing so much transient activity on the border with Iraq," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) told reporters after the hearing. He said Syria's handing over of Hussein's brother should not lead the United States to grant Damascus "a lot of leeway," adding, "They should have done that a long time ago."
Abizaid predicted that Iraqi security forces, while not up to the task yet, will assume the lead role in fighting the insurgency by the end of the year. "They will get better and I think in 2005 will take on the majority of the tasks," he said.
About 90 battalions of Iraqi security forces are lightly armed and have limited mobility around the country compared with U.S. troops, he said, but their chief weakness is a fledgling chain of command. To bolster Iraqi capabilities and leadership, the U.S. military plans to increase the number of advisers embedded with Iraqi forces, although the size of the increase is pending. A decision must be made by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Abizaid said. "We're trying to figure out how much augmentation will be required," he said.
Asked by lawmakers about irregular Iraqi militia springing up around the country, Abizaid said the help of such militia in providing security for the elections was "in some ways a good thing." In the long run, however, they should be incorporated with Iraqi government forces. "Ultimately . . . it's destabilizing," he said.