- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

1:10 p.m.

Two of the Pentagon’s most senior generals conceded to Congress today that the surge in sectarian violence in Baghdad in recent weeks means Iraq may descend into civil war.

“Iraq could move toward civil war” if the violence is not contained, Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it,” he said, adding that the top priority in Iraq is to secure the capital, where factional violence has surged in recent weeks despite efforts by the new Iraqi government to stop the fighting.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel, “We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war.” He added that this need not happen and stressed that it depends ultimately on the Iraqis more than the U.S. military.

“Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other,” Gen. Pace said, before the tensions can be overcome. “The weight of that must be on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government.”

Later in the hearing, Gen. Abizaid expressed confidence that the Iraqi government is moving in the right direction.

“Am I optimistic whether or not Iraqi forces, with our support, with the backing of the Iraqi government, can prevent the slide to civil war? My answer is yes, I’m optimistic that that slide can be prevented,” he said.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have refused steadfastly to call the situation in Iraq a civil war, although Mr. Rumsfeld at a news conference yesterday acknowledged that the violence is increasing.

The commanders’ remarks come at a time when, thanks to the high level of violence in Baghdad, Bush administration hopes have diminished of significantly reducing the U.S. force in Iraq, which Mr. Rumsfeld said totals 133,000. Last year, Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed hopes of significant troop cuts this year, comments that Gen. Abizaid seemed to temper today.

“Since the time that General Casey made that statement, it’s clear that the operational and the tactical situation in Baghdad is such that it requires additional security forces, both U.S. and Iraqi,” Gen. Abizaid told Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee.

“It’s possible to imagine some reductions in forces, but I think the most important thing to imagine is Baghdad coming under the control of the Iraqi government,” he said.

The general also said under questioning that it was possible that U.S. casualties could rise as a result of the battle to contain sectarian violence in the capital.

“I think it’s possible that in the period ahead of us in Baghdad that we’ll take increased casualties — that’s possible,” Gen. Abizaid said.

The three-year-old Iraq war has cost more than 2,500 U.S. lives and more than a quarter-trillion in taxpayer dollars.

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