- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The top U.S. commander for Iraq said yesterday that the insurgency there grew in numbers and in effectiveness in the three months before the Jan. 30 elections, but could not field enough terrorists to derail the historic vote.

“No doubt that the Sunni-Arab insurgency in Iraq was stronger through the period, November, December, January, than it was the same time last year,” Gen. John Abizaid, the overall commander of the Persian Gulf region, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “So it did, in fact, increase in intensity.”

Gen. Abizaid added his assessment to a monthlong debate in Washington over the size, effectiveness and future of the insurgent force that has killed hundreds of American troops.

Gen. Richard Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, has testified that the enemy has a limited capacity to carry out about 50 attacks daily.

Intelligence officials generally have painted a more robust picture of an insurgency that is dominated by Sunnis loyal to Saddam Hussein, and that is augmented by violent foreign jihadists led by Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Gen. Abizaid seemed to side more with Gen. Myers’ assessment. Gen. Abizaid pointed out that the terrorists deemed the Jan. 30 Iraqi election as the one day they wanted to come out in force and disrupt. Yet, intelligence estimates showed the enemy could only field 3,500 fighters throughout Iraq that day.

“We say to ourselves, why didn’t they put more people in the field? Where were they?” Gen. Abizaid testified. “They threw their whole force at us, we think, and yet they were unable to disturb the elections because people wanted to vote. So I believe that there’s probably a lot of room for interpretation in the numbers of the insurgency.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld repeatedly has refused to publicly give the intelligence agencies’ classified estimate of the insurgency. He has said it is considerably less than the 40,000 estimated by the Iraqi interim government.

Likewise, Gen. Abizaid did not provide a number, but said the Jan. 30 elections and subsequent political jockeying by winning parties “have driven those numbers down.”

The four-star general said neighboring Syria continues its efforts to destabilize Iraq, despite Syria’s arrest and turnover Sunday of Sabawi Ibrahim al Hassan. Hassan, Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, directed and financed the insurgency from Damascus.

“I cannot tell you that the level of infiltration has decreased,” Gen. Abizaid said of insurgents coming over the Syrian border. “I can tell you there appears to be some change of attitude. But I would characterize Syria as continuing to be very unhelpful in helping Iraq achieve stability.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a strong supporter of ousting Saddam and one of only a handful of Senate Democrats who still support President Bush’s Iraq policy, used yesterday’s hearing to thank Gen. Abizaid for fighting the insurgency.

“God bless you and thank you,” Mr. Lieberman said. “And I think, not only to thank you, but that the American service people, those who lost their lives, the families of those who lost their lives, I think, feel every day that their loved ones didn’t die in vain, that they died in a cause that is transforming the Middle East and will protect our security and our children’s and our grandchildren’s for decades to come. And I wanted to thank you for that.”

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