- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Marine Gen. Peter Pace appeared before 1,300 troops in this hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency yesterday to assure them that the American public supports them and that the support would continue.

Hours afterward, three back-to-back explosions killed 20 persons and wounded more than 70 in a mostly Shi’ite neighborhood in southern Baghdad.

On his first visit to Fallujah as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Pace predicted to an audience of mostly Marines that Americans would continue to support the war.

“I think sometimes when you are out here at the tip of the spear, you wonder what’s going on back in the United States and do you all still have the support of your fellow citizens?” Gen. Pace said. “The answer is, yes, you do.”

Public support for the troops doesn’t extend to the Iraq war itself, however. More than half, 58 percent, said in a Newsweek poll released this weekend that the United States is losing ground in Iraq and opposition to the war has been growing.

During his meeting with the troops, the general also took questions.

How much more time, one Marine asked, should the Iraqi government be given to achieve the political unity necessary to stabilize the country?

“I guess they have as long as it takes,” Gen. Pace replied, quickly adding, “which is not forever.”

Gen. Pace argued that setting a deadline by which the United States would withdraw its support would risk pushing the Iraqis into political decisions that are unviable. On the other hand, he said, “You do not want to leave it open-ended.”

One Marine wound up a question about troop deployments to Iraq by asking, “Is the war coming to an end?”

Gen. Pace didn’t answer directly. He said military leaders are trying to keep enough troops in Iraq to achieve the mission of training Iraqi troops to take over the security mission, while avoiding having so many that it creates an Iraqi dependency. About 133,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq.

Gen. Pace did not explicitly mention the political debate in Washington about a withdrawal timeline, but the senior commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, said in an interview that he is concerned about the effects of that debate.

“That plays back here,” he said of calls by some in Congress for a U.S. troop withdrawal to begin this year. “People hear that. It does create the question: Is there the national commitment behind what we’re doing over here?”

The first of three explosions in Baghdad yesterday occurred about 7:15 p.m. when a rocket struck an apartment building in the Zafraniyah neighborhood, police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said.

About 10 minutes later, a car bomb exploded as police and bystanders rushed to the scene, he said. A bomb strapped to a motorcycle went off in the same area minutes later, he said.

First reports said eight persons were killed in the rocket attack and 12 in the two other blasts, he said, adding that more than 70 were wounded.

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