Iraq at Risk Of Civil War, Top Generals Tell Senators

By Dana Priest and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 4, 2006

Two top U.S. generals said yesterday that the sectarian violence in Iraq is much worse than they had ever anticipated and could lead to civil war, arguing that improving the situation is now more a matter of Iraqi political will than of U.S. military strategy.

"The sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it," Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

The testimony from Abizaid and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, was the military's most dire assessment of conditions in Iraq since the war began 40 months ago. It echoed the opinion of Britain's outgoing ambassador to Iraq, who, in a confidential memo revealed yesterday, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that a de facto partition of Iraq is more likely than a transition to democracy.

Both U.S. generals said they think Iraq will be successful in maintaining a stable government in the near future, but their assessment about the possible slide into civil war is something the administration had avoided acknowledging before.

"We do have the possibility of that devolving to a civil war, but that does not have to be a fact," said Pace. ". . . We need the Iraqi people to seize this moment."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the Iraq violence "unfortunate" and "tragic." He said he "remains confident in the good, common sense of the American people" that running away from Iraq would amount to victory for "murderers and extremists."

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the administration may need to seek new authorization from Congress to allow U.S. troops to fight in a civil war. Originally, the forces were authorized to topple Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party.

Senators from both parties questioned whether troops were adequately trained to fight in a civil war. If it comes to that, asked Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), "which side are we on?"

"I'm reluctant to speculate about that," Rumsfeld said. "It could lead to a discussion that suggests that we presume that's going to happen. . . . The government is holding together. The armed forces are holding together."

Several times during the hearing, Rumsfeld expressed concern that the committee's back-and-forth would aid the enemy. "They're waging a psychological war of attrition," he said at one point. "They want us pointing fingers at each other rather than pointing fingers at them."

The somber mood was amplified by concern about the war in Lebanon and the possibility that it will lead to instability in the region.

"I've rarely seen it so unsettled or volatile," Abizaid said.

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