Generals warn of civil war in Iraq

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The military’s senior leaders acknowledged yesterday that a year ago they did not anticipate the current level of chaos and violence in Baghdad, which is dampening talk of a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops for late this year.

Gens. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs chairman, and John Abizaid, who as Central Command chief oversees operations in Iraq, also told a Senate committee that a civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims is possible but that the three-month-old government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will likely be able to prevent it.

Asked by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a hawk on Iraq, if a year ago they anticipated the current sectarian violence that has forced a reshuffling of allied forces, Army Gen. Abizaid said, “I believe that a year ago it was clear to see that sectarian tensions were increasing. That they would be this high, no.” Marine Gen. Pace agreed.

That answer added to the perception on Capitol Hill that military commanders remain one step behind extremists who are trying to bring down the new Shi’ite-dominated government. Mr. McCain said, “Now we’re going to have to move troops into Baghdad from someplace else. It’s very disturbing.”

The two generals hailed the emerging Iraqi army — which is supposed to be fully trained and equipped by year’s end — and pointed fingers at Iran for injecting agents and money to prop up death squads of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army.

“I think it’s clear that the insurgency has a lot of resiliency,” Gen. Abizaid said. “It’s probably going to last for some time, even after U.S. forces depart and hand over security control completely to the Iraqis.”

The setting for the four-star generals, flanked by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was the Senate Armed Services Committee. For Democrats seeking to make Iraq an issue for retaking control of Congress in the November elections, the hearing provided a political forum.

“I think you’ve lost everyone with this dialogue,” Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, pointedly said to Mr. Rumsfeld, as the defense chief tried to explain the administration’s response to the Army’s urgent need for $17 billion to replace damaged equipment. Mr. Reed called the low readiness of non-deployed Army combat brigades “a stunning indictment of your leadership.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and her party’s perceived presidential front-runner in 2008, confronted Mr. Rumsfeld with a list of what she considered failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. She concluded, “You are presiding over a failed policy.”

“My goodness,” Mr. Rumsfeld replied in his old-fashioned manner. “I’ve tried to make notes and to follow the prepared statement you’ve presented.”

He sought to explain demands of fighting extremists who wantonly kill civilians. “I would disagree strongly with your statement,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton then accused Mr. Rumsfeld of making “many comments and presented, you know, many assurances that have, frankly, proven to be unfulfilled.”

“Senator, I don’t think that’s true,” Mr. Rumsfeld interjected. “I have never painted a rosy picture. I have been very measured in my words. And you’d have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I’ve been excessively optimistic. I understand this is tough stuff.”

After more than three years of fighting insurgents, two national elections and a new voter-approved constitution, the Bush administration hoped a year ago that a congressional hearing at this point would be focused on troop withdrawals and progress by Iraq’s new government.

Instead, the backdrop was quite different. Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, is extending the tours of some units, such as a Stryker armored vehicle brigade, and sending it from Mosul into Baghdad. This week’s report from the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq spoke of continued corruption there, and Democrats are castigating the administration on the Army’s request for the $17 billion and why it was not in the 2007 budget submitted in February.

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