'06 Cuts In Iraq Troops Unlikely

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The U.S. military is unlikely to reduce forces in Iraq before next spring because the current contingent of more than 140,000 troops is battling sectarian violence that could prove "fatal" to the country if not arrested, the top American commander for the Middle East said yesterday.

"This level will probably have to be sustained through the spring" amid aggressive operations to stabilize Baghdad, said Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command. "I do believe that the secular tensions, if left unchecked, could be fatal to Iraq . . . and the center of the problem is Baghdad. It's the main effort," he told defense reporters.

In a sober assessment, Abizaid, who has overseen the U.S. military strategy in Iraq since July 2003, said he had hoped six months ago for the withdrawal of several thousand U.S. troops from Iraq by now. "We clearly did not achieve the force levels that we had hoped to," he said, citing sectarian unrest, ongoing weaknesses in the capabilities of Iraqi security forces -- in particular the police -- and the five-month political void in the country after the December 2005 national elections.

Asked point-blank whether the United States is winning in Iraq, Abizaid replied: "Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we're winning the war."

The general's comments effectively ended hopes for a big troop withdrawal from Iraq this year, which had long been the military's target for reducing forces. As violence has intensified over the spring and summer, military leaders and the Pentagon's official assessment of the war have delivered increasingly tough characterizations of conditions in Iraq.

Now, six weeks before the U.S. midterm elections for which Iraq is a galvanizing issue, Abizaid is delivering the message that there will be no hasty exit from the costly conflict.

In Baghdad, Abizaid said, U.S. and Iraqi military operations have reduced violence "slightly," but he emphasized that it is too early to tell whether such progress will continue. The holy month of Ramadan is likely to bring increased bloodshed, as in past years, he said. "Baghdad's not going to clarify itself in my mind militarily for a couple of months," he said, pointing in particular to the difficulty of reining in what he called the "splintered" death squads of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"The bodies are piling up in areas that are not necessarily the same areas that we're patrolling," he said, acknowledging that even with the increased forces in Baghdad, U.S. troops cannot be everywhere in the sprawling city of 5 million people. U.S. and Iraqi troops are methodically clearing neighborhoods in Baghdad, while the military is also attempting to control movement into the city at 28 locations. The U.S. military plans to reevaluate the security plan in Baghdad in December, by which time more Iraqi troops should have moved into the capital, he said.

While dampening hopes of troop cuts this year, Abizaid left open the possibility that the U.S. troop level could be increased. "We'll bring in more forces if we have to," he said.

The military would draw, if necessary, on reserve forces already in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region before asking the Pentagon to send more U.S. troops, Abizaid said. He added that there is currently no plan to further extend the tour in Iraq of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade. That unit had been scheduled to return home over the summer but was abruptly diverted to Baghdad in July when sectarian killings spiraled there.

It costs about $1.2 billion a month to keep a U.S. Army division in combat in Iraq, an Army insider said.

Abizaid's assessment was echoed yesterday by members of the Iraq Study Group, a nonpartisan 10-member panel that will present detailed recommendations to the White House and Congress later this year.

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