U.S. Commander in Iraq Says 'Crisis Has Passed'

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that "the crisis has passed" after an outbreak of sectarian fighting that began 10 days ago and left hundreds of Iraqi civilians dead, but he warned that violence could erupt again and said civil war, while unlikely, remains possible.

Army Gen. George W. Casey, commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, said he will take into account the Iraqi government's reaction to the unrest as well as the role of sectarian militias when he assesses this spring how many U.S. troops are needed in Iraq. Since December's elections, the Pentagon has lowered force levels by more than 20,000, to about 133,000.

Casey pointed in particular to the need for Iraq's government to "deal with the militia issue in the very near future," saying that disarming the groups of sectarian fighters is vital to U.S. success in the long run.

"I do not believe that we will ultimately succeed until the Iraqi security forces, the police and the military, are the only ones in Iraq with guns," he told a Pentagon news briefing via teleconference from Iraq.

Overall, Casey portrayed an Iraq that remains fragile and uncertain, but in which the government and security forces are proving effective in containing the unrest and restoring calm. "Is the violence out of control? Clearly not. Now, it appears that the crisis has passed," he said.

Casey said that in the initial days after the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra, there was "a confusing jumble of exaggerated reporting that actually took us a few days to, kind of, sort through."

He said 350 Iraqi civilians had died in a surge of sectarian killings, militia violence and revenge attacks on about 30 mosques around the country after the bombing. "This, obviously, is unacceptable," he said.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the death count was higher, quoting Baghdad morgue officials as saying it was more than 1,300 and, subsequently, an Interior Ministry official who put the number at 1,077.

An international official in Baghdad, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that about 1,000 people had been killed between the day of the bombing and Monday, and said the figure came from morgue officials and others. He said those officials have since acceded to a lower official count because they feared reprisals if they did not.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari said Tuesday that numbers reported by The Post were exaggerated, and that the toll was 379.

Casey said that Iraqi security forces had taken the initiative and had performed "generally well" in response to the violence, with support from the United States and other coalition members. But he said there were exceptions, notably in Baghdad and Basra, when the Iraqi army and police took several days to quell the unrest.

Moreover, in Baghdad, Iraqi security forces in several instances aided the militias' movements, allowing them to pass unhindered through checkpoints, according to military reports cited by Casey. He said the militias were primarily responsible for attacks on mosques in Baghdad, where militias in neighborhoods such as the predominantly Shiite Sadr City had taken to the streets immediately after the Samarra bombing.

Militias in Iraq remain "a long-term problem and there's no silver-bullet, quick solution to it," he said.

Casey said he believes, but has no "conclusive evidence," that an organization linked to al-Qaeda carried out the attack on the domed mosque in Samarra. He said Iraqi forces are bolstering security at key religious sites amid reports that another major strike could be planned.

"Iraq is not out of danger. There is still a terrorist threat here that is working to foment continued sectarian violence," he said.

Better security on Iraq's borders has reduced the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq, Casey said -- contributing to a decline in suicide bombings from 60 or 70 a month last summer to about 30 last fall and 17 in February.

On another topic, Casey reiterated that he had not ordered a stop to the practice of paying the Iraqi media to run articles, and he said that based on the results of an official investigation into the issue, "I do not intend to, in the near term." He said the results of the investigation will be released in about a week.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company