- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress yesterday the quick formation of a national unity government in Iraq is critical to avoiding a civil war, and he predicted Iraqi troops, not U.S. forces, would deal with such a conflict.

Mr. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior U.S. military commanders said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that sectarian tensions were on the rise in Iraq, but American troops were not in danger of getting caught in the middle of a civil war.

“Certainly it is not the intention of U.S. military commanders to allow that to happen,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “Thus far, the situation has been such that the Iraqi security forces could for the most part deal with the problems that exist.”

He said incidents like the bombing last month of a major Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Samarra by suspected Sunni Arab insurgents only increased the urgency for Iraq’s feuding factions to agree on a government in Baghdad.

“The situation to the extent that it’s fragile and tense is as much a governance issue as it is a security issue,” he said.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command with overall responsibility for the Iraqi campaign, acknowledged that sectarian tensions in Iraq “are higher than we have seen and a source of great concern.”

But he added that Iraq’s security forces “did a good job” after the Samarra bombing in controlling tensions, even though hundreds were believed to have died in the Sunni-Shi’ite fighting that erupted after the attack.

“We believe the violence can be controlled,” he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld, in a rare joint congressional appearance with Miss Rice, faced repeated questions from Democratic lawmakers about the course of the Iraq campaign, the future costs of the war and the schedule for when U.S. troops in the country could return home.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the administration’s assurances about Iraq’s security forces echoed similar assurances a year ago — with little evidence to show that things have gotten better.

“Every year, we hear about growing [Iraqi] numbers and growing capabilities, and yet 138,000 of our best and bravest are still there in danger today,” he said.”

But Mr. Rumsfeld argued strongly that progress was being made.

“There’s a lot of people parading around denigrating the Iraqi forces, and they are just wrong,” he said.

The Senate panel was considering a $71 billion supplemental budget request from the administration to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as emergency programs such as food aid for Sudan’s Darfur region and earthquake relief in Pakistan.

Under questioning from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Peter Pace said there was no money set aside in the spending request for a possible invasion of Iran.

Tensions have soared with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program, but Gen. Pace said the military was now only budgeting to fight Iranian agents and operatives trying to infiltrate Iraq.

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