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.
"Time is short, the level of violence is great, the margins for error are narrow," co-chairman and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) said at a news conference at the U.S. Institute for Peace. He declined to discuss the group's research but painted a generally grim picture. "This is a very tough problem. The options are limited; there is no silver bullet; there is no magic formula to this very tough situation in Iraq."
The group, which began looking into Iraq's prospects in March, is expected to produce a report sometime after the November elections, a schedule that former secretary of state James A. Baker III said is designed to remove any politics from the group's findings. Baker, who is also a co-chairman, said the group's focus is on Iraq's future, not on any past mistakes that led to the country's current tumult.
Discussing a particularly troubled area, Anbar province in western Iraq, Abizaid said that despite serious security problems he has no immediate plans to significantly increase U.S. forces there, as was recommended by the senior Marine intelligence officer in Anbar in a classified report last month.
"It's very, very clear that Anbar province is a problem that will have to be dealt with over time," Abizaid said. "It's a violent area, it's a tribal area, it's a tough area," he said. He added that the Iraqi forces there "need a lot of work."
"Whenever we bring out foreigners -- be that anyone who's not from al-Anbar -- to serve in the military or police units there, they immediately want to go somewhere else," he said, suggesting that recruiting people from local Sunni tribes to serve as auxiliary forces might offer a solution.
Asked why he would not send additional U.S. troops to Anbar, Abizaid said that it is a huge area with many small population centers that would "soak up a lot of troops from the decisive areas where we need them more," such as Baghdad. "Ample troops doesn't mean you have enough troops to do everything, everywhere," he said.
Abizaid said substantially increasing U.S. ground forces could breed dependency in Iraqi troops while complicating the already demanding rotations of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for other contingencies.
The general also said that there are now more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than ever before. U.S. commanders expect the current U.S. troop level of 20,000 to remain fairly steady at least until the spring. Insiders attributed recent increases to a growing training program for Afghan security forces, noting that the actual number of troops in combat roles has held steady. Currently, about 4,500 troops are involved in training the Afghan army.
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks and Josh White contributed to this report.