By Thomas E. Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 16, 2006
The top U.S. commander for Iraq told Congress yesterday that a phased withdrawal of American troops would unleash more sectarian strife, and instead he advocated a "major change" in strategy that would beef up U.S. military teams training Iraqi forces.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, said bolstering the training effort could require a further increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, already higher than expected at more than 140,000, and said no cuts are planned.
Facing searing questions from Democrats and Republicans alike, some of whom voiced disappointment in Abizaid and questioned his credibility, the general acknowledged mistakes in the war effort. But he voiced optimism that Iraq's military can stabilize the country, given enough U.S. backing and political support from Iraq's government.
"We haven't misled people. We have learned some hard lessons," he said in one tense exchange before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The first major Iraq hearings since the Nov. 7 midterm elections revealed blunt impatience among Democrats as well as open frustration from Republicans, and produced the rare spectacle of presidential hopefuls from both parties taking aim at the general.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) took exception with Abizaid's talk of all the steps that the Iraqi government needs to take. "Hope is not a method," she told him. "We've had testimony now for four years about what 'must be done' -- and it doesn't get done."
Abizaid shot back: "I would also say that despair is not a method."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another presidential contender, voiced disappointment that Abizaid seemed to be clinging to the "status quo" -- an assertion the general rejected.
In an unusual admission, Abizaid said there should have been more U.S. troops, as well as Iraqi and foreign forces, to stabilize the country immediately after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. "General [Eric] Shinseki was right that a greater international force contribution, U.S. force contribution and Iraqi force contribution should have been available immediately after major combat operations," he said.
Abizaid also said the policy of "de-Baathification" of Iraq society introduced in 2003 by then-U.S. Proconsul L. Paul Bremer was too severe.
Under hard questioning from McCain, Abizaid spoke frankly about the stress on U.S. forces, which he said constrains any major troop increase. "We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect. But when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps," he said. He later told a House panel that exceeding current troop levels would place "a tremendous strain" on the Army.
McCain, who favors a significant boost in U.S. forces, quizzed Abizaid on why more troops have not been sent to the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, where U.S. casualties are among the highest in Iraq and Marine commanders say they lack sufficient forces.
"General Abizaid, is al-Anbar province under control?" McCain asked.
"Al-Anbar province is not under control, Senator," Abizaid replied. He said he recently released a Marine expeditionary unit of more than 2,000 troops from the Middle East to reinforce troops in Anbar. Still, he said that Baghdad and not Anbar will remain the main military effort, and that Iraqi forces will have to do more.
"I regret deeply that you seem to think that the status quo and the rate of progress we're making is acceptable. I think most Americans do not," McCain concluded. Abizaid disagreed, saying his new emphasis on training is "a major change."
Other Republicans showed a new skepticism about U.S. policy in Iraq. "It's taking us a lot longer than we thought," said Saxby Chambliss (Ga.). Even John W. Warner, the courtly Virginian who chairs the committee, opened by noting that on Nov. 26, U.S. troops will have been fighting in Iraq longer than they fought in World War II.
On the broader debate over Iraq strategy, Abizaid said partitioning the country, as some analysts have suggested, is "not viable." "I can't imagine in particular how a Sunni state could survive," he said, predicting it would devolve into an al-Qaeda terrorist haven. A Shiite state would fall under domination by Iran, he said.
Amid widespread criticism by lawmakers of the Iraqi government's leadership, Abizaid stressed he has confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and had urged him in a meeting this week to disarm Shiite militias "soon." By that, Abizaid testified, he meant in four to six months.
The Iraqi army will take the lead in pacifying militias, he said, emphasizing that is one reason the U.S. military should redouble efforts to train Iraqi forces. That option is said to be favored by several members of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), which is expected to make recommendations next month.
Teams of U.S. military trainers embedded with Iraqi units "need to be substantially expanded" so they can reach down to the company level, Abizaid said. He indicated he will try to find troops for that expansion from the existing U.S. force in Iraq but said he is not sure whether that is possible.
Abizaid said adding U.S. troops to Iraq would discourage Iraqis from taking the lead in their own security -- something he predicted they may be ready to do in as little as 12 months. He acknowledged the current U.S. force level in Iraq of 15 brigades is already three to five brigades -- or 10,000 to 20,000 troops -- higher than what he projected it would be before sectarian fighting erupted in Iraq in the spring.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.