By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The Pentagon is taking "very seriously" a classified intelligence report concluding that the U.S. military has fought to a stalemate in Iraq's western Anbar province as political conditions also worsen in the "epicenter" of the country's Sunni insurgency, a senior defense official said yesterday.
In congressional testimony on security in Iraq, Pentagon officials also said the rise of "ethno-sectarian violence" has laid the conditions for civil war, aborting plans by U.S. commanders to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Gaps in the capabilities of Iraqi security forces leave open the prospect that U.S. forces may have to stay in the country for as many as five or more years, they said.
Calling Anbar "a very hot zone on the battlefield," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric S. Edelman said the secret report on the volatile, strategic province was gaining high-level attention at the Pentagon.
"It is an important report. We've taken it very seriously," Edelman told a panel of the House Government Reform Committee. "This is an operational assessment by one very good intel officer," he said, adding that "a lot of us are looking at it very closely" and are seeking a further assessment on Anbar from top U.S. commanders in Iraq.
The report, first outlined publicly in The Washington Post yesterday, said a shortage of U.S. and Iraqi troops in Anbar and the collapse of local governments have left a vacuum that has been exploited by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. It painted a bleak picture of security prospects in Anbar, a large province bordering Syria and Jordan that includes the troubled cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
"Anbar has been the epicenter of the insurgency," Edelman said, adding that "a purely military solution to any insurgency is not possible." He said the report was a "snapshot" that does not represent the entire country.
Edelman prompted an angry retort from Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) by saying that it would not be "productive" to discuss the classified report on the conflict in Anbar in a public hearing.
"But wouldn't it be of interest to the parents of American soldiers who are being sent to fight, that they would know that a report existed that said that a province was beyond repair and the thing couldn't be won militarily? Wouldn't that be of interest, Mr. Edelman?" Kucinich replied. Edelman explained that he was concerned because "the enemy, you know, is clearly following the discussion."
On overall security in Iraq, lawmakers pressed Edelman and Rear Adm. William D. Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on why the growth of Iraq's military and police forces has not yet permitted a reduction in the number of U.S. troops, which increased to 140,000 over the summer.
Iraq expects by December to have completed the training and equipping of 325,000 security forces, including 137,000 military personnel and 188,000 police and other Ministry of Interior forces, Sullivan said. And the U.S. military has turned over 53 of its 100 bases in Iraq to the Iraqi government. But he said the emergence of sectarian violence in addition to the Sunni insurgency has led U.S. commanders to decide "that they cannot afford to draw down our own troop levels while the Iraqis are still building up theirs."
Sullivan conceded that in the longer term, because Iraq's military has been trained and outfitted primarily to fight an insurgency, rather than to defend Iraq against foreign attack, U.S. forces could be required as backup for many years.
"Am I wrong in making the assumption that we're going to have American troops there or nearby for a long time . . . in order to defend this nation?" asked Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on national security.
"It is very much a possibility," Sullivan replied. He said the intent in developing Iraq's military was to create a force "that would have a modicum of its own self-defense capability without being an army that could threaten its neighbors." Iraqi leaders are still trying to "figure out what kind of military ultimately they need," he said.
Edelman said he did not know whether U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq in five or fewer years. Asked whether they would be home in 10 years, he replied: "I certainly hope so."