Friday, September 30, 2005

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East laid out for Congress yesterday al Qaeda’s plan for conquering the region in testimony meant to shore up political support for a war against the terror group in Iraq that is taking an increasing number of American lives.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, joined Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and two other four-star generals at the witness table as some skeptical lawmakers questioned American strategy in Iraq 21/2 years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.

Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander in Iraq, acknowledged before the Senate Armed Services Committee a setback in constructing a new Iraqi security force. He said the number of independently operating Iraqi army battalions had dropped from three to one, due, in part, to exacting combat-readiness standards.

He said the coalition still does not control the Syrian border, through which suicidal bombers flow to the ranks of terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“We have had, since April, an objective of restoring Iraqi control to that Syrian border before the [December] election,” he said.

Gen. Casey also backed off his prediction of substantial U.S. troops cuts next year.

“The next 75 days are going to be critical in what happens after that,” he testified, referring to a constitutional referendum Oct. 15 and parliamentary elections in December, for which 98 percent of eligible voters are registered.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, making his last congressional appearance as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman before relinquishing the post today, clashed with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, over progress in Iraq.

“General Myers seems to assume that things have gone well in Iraq,” said Mr. McCain, who has said he has no confidence in Mr. Rumsfeld’s leadership. “General Myers seems to assume that … the support for our conflict there is not eroding.”

Gen. Myers, who has said the United States is “winning” in Iraq, responded, “I don’t think this committee or the American public has ever heard me say that things are going very well in Iraq. This is a hard struggle.”

Gen. Abizaid raised the stakes for Iraq by presenting a chilling assessment of al Qaeda’s worldwide goals. He said leader Osama bin Laden’s sights are set on Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and then the entire region, as well as Asia.

Although the Bush administration describes the conflict as the “war on terror,” Gen. Abizaid made clear the enemy is al Qaeda.

“Their objectives are very clear,” Gen. Abizaid said. “They believe in a jihad, a jihad, first and foremost, to overthrow the legitimate regimes in the region. But in order to do that, they have to first drive us from the region. This is what they believe. They believe, ultimately, that the greatest prize of all is Saudi Arabia and the holy shrines there.”

He said the war against Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq, and al Qaeda worldwide, presents “a rare opportunity to get in front of these extremists and focus on them now before al Qaeda and its underlying ideology becomes mainstream.”

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