Friday, April 30, 2004

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday the fighting in the country has been the toughest in months, but added that no more troops are needed unless fighting there intensifies.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said in a video interview from Qatar that the “fighting in Iraq this month has been more intense than at any time since the major combat operations of March and April of last year.”

The most difficult battles have taken place in an area from Baghdad west to al Qaim.

“This fighting was primarily against former regime elements,” Gen. Abizaid said. “It included foreign fighters, terrorists, and most certainly extremists — Iraqi extremists as well. Large movements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were necessary.”

The fighting is especially heavy in Fallujah, where as many as 2,000 insurgents are located.

“No doubt that the casualties suffered in April have been the most severe casualties that we’ve suffered in Iraq to date,” Gen. Abizaid said.

He said the fighting in Iraq as well as Afghanistan is expected to continue and will be difficult.

“We all need to have the patience to understand that these missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are hard. They’re difficult. They’ll take time. But we are not in any military danger of losing control of the situation, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan,” he said.

April was especially deadly for U.S. forces, with more than 100 killed and some 900 wounded. U.S. officials have attributed the sharp rise in violence to the coming turnover of partial sovereignty to a new Iraqi government, now set to take place June 30.

Gen. Abizaid said the current troop level of 138,000 U.S. troops and 24,900 troops from coalition countries is enough and that more would not be needed unless the fighting intensified.

The withdrawal of troops from Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic has created a “hole” in security efforts, he said.

“I do favor the inclusion of more international troops, especially more Muslim troops,” he said. “This needs to be less of an American occupation and more of an international military activity that includes Iraqis, international forces and Americans.”

On the prospect of a political settlement to fighting in Fallujah, Gen. Abizaid said, “What we have there is an opportunity and not necessarily an agreement.”

The four-star general, however, stated: “Clearly, there are certain things that we will not tolerate in Fallujah. We will not tolerate the presence of foreign fighters. We insist that the heavy weapons come off the streets. We want the Marines to have freedom of maneuver in Fallujah, along with Iraqi security forces and Iraqi police.”

Gen. Abizaid said the al Qaeda-associated terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi “has used Fallujah as a base of operation.”

“You know, this idea that there will be a safe haven for him is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “Nor will we or our Iraqi partners allow foreign fighters to freely roam the country and attack indiscriminately and use Iraqi civilians as shields from which to conduct military operations.”

The main goal now is “restoring law and order into Fallujah,” he added.

The difficulty in Fallujah is that the enemy fighters are terrorists linked to Zarqawi and other foreign fighters that “will not be controlled by even the best people in Iraq,” he said.

“And so we will have to eliminate that enemy in a way that does not allow that force to challenge us throughout Iraq and other places at other times,” he said, noting that some will probably flee or blend into the population.

For the fighters that are unlikely to surrender, “it may be necessary to have a strong fight in there, and we’re prepared to do that at a time and place of our choosing,” Gen. Abizaid said.

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