New Commander Sees Hope, Trouble in Iraq

The Associated Press
Wednesday, April 18, 2007; 5:37 PM

WASHINGTON -- Baghdad security has improved a bit, but the gains will be lost unless Iraqis find a way to bring minority Sunnis fully into the government, the new commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday.

Navy Adm. William Fallon, who replaced Army Gen. John Abizaid as chief of U.S. Central Command last month, offered a House panel his assessment of progress and setbacks in Iraq after his first visit there. He was generally optimistic but acknowledged that the anti-government militants are far from defeated.

"The things I see on a daily basis give me some cause for optimism, but I have to tell you that hardly a week goes by _ almost a day hardly goes by _ without some major event that causes us to lose ground," Fallon said.

"I will tell you quite honestly that it bothers me and I hold my breath regularly in anticipation, regrettably, of the suicide bombers," Fallon said. "These are people that are just seemingly, totally bent on creating as much chaos and bloodshed as possible, particularly against the civilian communities. I think we are challenged to work against this problem."

Just Wednesday, four large bombs exploded in mostly Shiite areas of the Iraqi capital, killing nearly 200 people in the deadliest day in the city since the start of the U.S.-Iraqi campaign to pacify the capital two months ago.

Fallon's assessment reflected the uncertain outlook in Baghdad and was similar in tone to statements he made at his Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 30. At that session he cautioned against expecting a sudden turnaround and said the United States might have to temper its expectations of what can be accomplished in Iraq.

"The local populace must see tangible results to gain a sense of a more helpful future," he said Wednesday. Otherwise it may not be possible to persuade them to accept alternatives to extremism, he indicated.

Of the problems to be overcome, "first and foremost" is the threat from suicide bombers whom Fallon said are motivated by al-Qaida extremists to wreak as much havoc as possible in order to divide the country. The bombers' other main objective, he said, is to kill Americans and thereby weaken U.S. will to fight.

"Of all the things that happen that are not good in this country (Iraq), this is the one that I think is most destabilizing," Fallon told the House Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., is a leading advocate of forcing President Bush to begin reducing the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq.

Fallon, who took the Central Command job as part of a broader overhaul of Bush's wartime leadership team, said there can be no substitute for reducing the level of sectarian violence, particularly in Baghdad.

"The best, most likely way that this is going to be reduced is by getting the Sunni population of this country to believe that they have a future as a part of Iraq," and to persuade them to assist U.S. and Iraqi forces in stopping the extremist attacks, he added. The Sunnis ruled the country during Saddam Hussein's three decades in power and are resentful of their minority status in today's Shiite-dominated government.

Fallon also expressed worry about Iranian support for Shiite militias.

"I do not believe these differing factions in Iraq share a similar vision of an inclusive political middle ground, nor do they agree how to get there," Fallon said in a separate written statement to the committee, adding that time is short.

"I recognize that we have a limited opportunity in which to capitalize on the potential offered by the surge," he said, using the military's term for troop reinforcement that is now under way in Baghdad and Anbar province.

Fallon told the committee that he spent three of his first four weeks on the job on fact-finding missions to Iraq, Afghanistan and other key countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. He said he was headed back to Iraq later Wednesday to get a more detailed look at the training of Iraqi police and soldiers.

On Afghanistan, Fallon said he was encouraged that most Afghanis seem to welcome the U.S. military presence, and he said the expected spring military offensive by the Taliban resistance has been less intense than expected. He attributed this to the Taliban spending more time harvesting an illicit opium product.

The Taliban, he said, are "out there actually whacking down poppies to fatten their coffers."

He also said he was pleased that Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in recent weeks had moved Army brigades from the Indian border area to positions close to the federally administered tribal areas of Waziristan, along the Afghan border. U.S. officials say Taliban fighters are taking haven in Waziristan.

© 2007 The Associated Press