- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

The top commanders in the war on terrorism were in Washington last week for briefings at a critical point for the Bush administration and Iraq.

The next 75 days, with a constitutional referendum followed by parliamentary elections, will determine whether Iraq becomes stable enough for some American troops to come home next year.

Defense sources said the message from Army Gen. John Abizaid, who heads Central Command, and Army Gen. George Casey, who runs operations is Iraq, was just about the same in private as it was in open congressional testimony and press conferences: The fledging Iraqi security force is much improved from a year ago, but there are no indications that Abu Musab Zarqawi’s murderous insurgency is less potent.

In fact, as the generals testified, car bombs and suicide bombers continued to kill scores of Iraqi civilians and security forces, and the American death toll is headed toward 2,000.

Gen. Casey appeared to stumble a bit in congressional testimony when he acknowledged that two of three Iraqi battalions had lost the highest combat readiness rating, level one, due in part to higher standards. That statement captured the headlines the next day.

At a press conference Friday, Gen. Casey urged reporters to look at the bigger picture. The press, he said, was focusing on two battalions, not the 100 that now patrol Iraq and take part in combat missions. There will be 100,000 more Iraqi forces on duty for the election this December than there were in January, when citizens elected the current government.

“We set that standard knowing full well that it was going to be a long time before all Iraqi units got in that category,” Gen. Casey said. “The fact that there’s only one or three units, that is not necessarily important to me right now. Next year at this time, I’ll be much more concerned about it.”

He said that whether army battalions are at level one, two or three, they are all capable of taking part in missions. Level one units are deemed ready to act independently.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that, in the past, the Americans did 80 percent of patrols. Now the Iraqis conduct that share.

“What’s important is that, every day, the number of Iraqi security forces are getting bigger, and they’re getting better,” he said.

Mindful of polls showing less than half the American people now support the Iraq war, Gen. Casey added, “We should not be afraid of this one. We and the Iraqi people will prevail in this battle of wills, if we don’t lose ours.”

Gen. Abizaid, now in his third year of commanding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, attempted to put Iraq in a high-stakes category. Al Qaeda is bent on an Islamic revolution, with a goal of creating extremist regimes throughout the world. Exiting Iraq too soon would deliver al Qaeda a historic victory.

“We know the enemy’s strategy, and we have a rare opportunity to get in front of these extremists and focus on them now, before al Qaeda and its underlying ideology become mainstream,” Gen. Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The generals met with plenty of skepticism, mostly on the Democratic side.

“I think we’re in trouble in Iraq because the president’s stated goal of spreading democracy does not give the military a clear mission,” said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

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