- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The top U.S. commander for Iraq dashed hopes yesterday for a troop withdrawal this year in a shift that shows how the killing sprees in Baghdad have wrecked the Bush administration’s plans for an election-year exodus.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, told a group of military reporters that, of the 140,000-plus troops now in Iraq, “I think that this level will probably have to be sustained through the spring, and then we’ll re-evaluate.”

He added, according to Reuters news service, “I think these are prudent force levels. I think they’re achieving the military effect.”

The remarks demonstrate how much the military command has shifted from hopes of reducing troops to 100,000 to a recognition that the current level must be maintained for months, if not another year.

Just last spring, Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, told reporters he expected “substantial” troop reductions before the end of 2006. And the Senate overwhelmingly approved a resolution that called for a major transition this year from American forces to the fledgling Iraqi Security Forces.

But something happened in the meantime: al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni terrorist group tied to remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, stepped up suicide-bombings on Shi’ites, targeting mosques, markets and clinics. Shi’ites, some inspired by firebrand cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, formed “death squads” who hunted and killed hundreds of Sunnis.

The sectarian violence reached such a high level this summer that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a new military campaign to retake Baghdad. Gen. Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee the violence was the worst he had seen in the capital since the April 2003 ousting of Saddam and expressed fears of a civil war.

Gen. Casey ordered in more troops from Kuwait and delayed the scheduled departures of other units. The chess moves brought manning levels from 132,000 to the current 147,000. Baghdad became the new pivotal battle to winning Iraq.

Last spring, Gen. Abizaid told reporters, “The downward trend [in U.S. troops levels] is a trend that, based on what I see now, is one that will continue.”

Democrats have made setbacks in Iraq a major campaign theme in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, accusing Mr. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of mismanaging a war that has cost the lives of nearly 2,700 American service members.

Gen. Abizaid defended troop levels in Anbar province, a Sunni-insurgent stronghold. A Marine Corps intelligence report recommended a big increase in troops to quell violence in the vast area.

“I think Baghdad is the most important place to put the military priority of effort,” Gen. Abizaid said. “We military guys generally believe that you have one priority effort. And our priority effort is Baghdad, not Anbar.”

Asked if the United States is winning, he said, “Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we’re winning the war.”

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