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General John Abizaid

March 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now our interview with Gen. John Abizaid. He’s the top American military commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the rest of his central command, from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa to South and Central Asia. I spoke with him this afternoon.

JIM LEHRER: General, welcome. Do you know with certainty now who was responsible for these bombings this week that killed so many Shiite Muslims?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I guess using the term “with certainty” is always one that is fraught with a bit of complications. But I am satisfied that the information that we have that this is the work of Zarqawi, is accurate. Zarqawi has indicated in his own letters that he has communicated to various people that we have intercepted and in other types of communications with people that we have detained that this is precisely what he intended to do, and I believe this is his work. It’s got the hallmark of al-Qaida and Zarqawi all over it – two independent attacks within four minutes of one another widely separated using suicide bombers.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe Zarqawi?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I would describe him as a mad man.

JIM LEHRER: What does he come from? How do you know that he has – and he’s an al-Qaida operative, but what else do you know about his ability to put all these kinds of things together.

ABIZAID: As far as Zarqawi is concerned, there is a network of extremists; it’s not just Zarqawi. It’s Ansar al-Islam. It’s – it’s al-Qaida. Undoubtedly, there are members of the former regime that are cooperating in some fashion and then there are extremists that are within Iraq that are cooperating with them.

Their ability to bring operations like this together comes through a lot of different techniques and a lot of different ways of communicating with one another — all the way from person-to-person contact to I presume messages by couriers and it may even include the Internet, for all I know. And so I think that if the person has the funds, the network, and the equipment to do this, and also the experience, which is the key factor, then they can be quite deadly.

JIM LEHRER: From your point of view looking at this operation was it difficult to pull off?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Was it difficult to pull off in a place where there are about a million pilgrims, where security is tight but not air tight because there’s no such thing as air tight security? I believe that in the atmosphere that surrounded the Ashura pilgrimage that -

JIM LEHRER: The Muslim holiday, right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Right. That there were key vulnerabilities that he knew about that he was able to exploit and that he probably ended up having inside workers helping him as well.

JIM LEHRER: Where is this guy?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: He’s somewhere in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: But you don’t know where. Do you know what area he is in?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No.

JIM LEHRER: Are you looking for him?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: We’re looking for him hard and we found quite a few of his operatives and we’ve taken out a couple of his senior operatives, and we’ve uncovered an awful lot of the work that he’s doing; and we’ve shared it with our Iraqi security colleagues and I believe that the threat that he presents to peace and stability in Iraq is one that should worry both the Iraqi authorities and American authorities.

JIM LEHRER: You say taking them out. You mean you’ve captured them, or you’ve killed them?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Both.

JIM LEHRER: Now the people you’ve captured, what do they say? Are they cooperating? Do they tell you things that you didn’t know? I mean, is this an important development that you’ve been able to capture these people?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Capturing any member of any terrorist cell or any insurgent cell that we may happen to come across is always very, very valuable, and the thing that interests me is that in most instances after a time people talk and they tell us what they know. Sometimes they’re harder than others and they really resist interrogation, and other times they tell us everything immediately.

But the key intelligence linkage in all of these operations is the capturing of people and then the putting together of information and linking the various parts from top to bottom that eventually gives you what I would call actionable intelligence that we can pass off to our special operating forces or our conventional forces that are in the field. So the skills required of our translators, interrogators, and human intelligence operators in Iraq are enormously demanding.

JIM LEHRER: I understand your forces thwarted some other attacks that were planned to coincide with these two big ones, is that right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, I know I use the term “thwarted” but of course you never know what sort of deterrence you’re having. You know, we had some successful operations in the vicinity of Karbala. The night before the attacks we know that the Iraqi police claimed to have had some success based on some intelligence that was passed to them down in Basra.

We had expected that there would be more car bombs used in the attacks based on the very broad intelligence tips that we had. And so we believe that he planned for a worse attack. There’s even some indication that perhaps something was planned up in the North in the Mosul area. But we believe that he had a very broad plan; the attack, as it was orchestrated, was devastating. Yet, we believe that that’s probably the vigilance of Iraqi security forces and some of our proactive measures the night before probably saved lives.

JIM LEHRER: The death toll the last time I checked was about two hundred and seventy, two hundred and seventy-one, is that right? Does that sound right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: The death toll that I’m getting from our headquarters in Iraq is 180 but it’s clearly many, many wounded and killed, and undoubtedly the numbers of wounded are probably dying because of the severity of some of the wounds. So, 271, if that’s what the Iraqis are saying, it wouldn’t surprise me.

JIM LEHRER: Some Shiites, as you know, in their anger over this are blaming U.S. forces for this and saying that U.S. security could have prevented this if they had wanted to. How do you respond to that?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, the hardest thing to do, as we know from our own experience on 9/11 is protect everything all the time. We had indications that an attack would come. We warned responsible members of the Shia community, we coordinated with Iraqi security institutions, we took additional measures ourselves. We alerted people in the multinational division Center South, which is commanded by a very capable Polish commander.

But all that having been said, you can’t, in a city of a million people like Karbala, or 5 million like Baghdad, you can’t be in all places at all times. It’s also natural in that part of the world to blame what people view as the … as the most important authority in the region, and that currently is the United States of America.

But as we move from this period of what many Iraqis regard as perceived occupation, we need to move towards one of partnership. And in this partnership, there’s not only shared work, but there’s shared responsibility, and I think Iraqi security authorities and us have got to continue to work to prevent these things from happening.

JIM LEHRER: So you understand the anger?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Sure.

JIM LEHRER: When you say “perceived occupation,” there’s a lot of conversation, not only in Iraq, but also here, about the use of the word “occupation.” Is that a pejorative term to you?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It’s not a pejorative term to me in terms of the legal definition of what is happening in Iraq. It is a very pejorative term to the people in the region because of the connotation of occupation from colonial times and the notion of occupation by any foreign power in that particular region, so it has been an unfortunate pejorative term.

I do not believe that you would adequately describe what we have done in Iraq as occupation. I believe we’ve … we’ve worked very hard with the Iraqis to build a better place ever since the fall of Saddam’s government.

JIM LEHRER: There are some Iraqis who say that call it occupation or whatever, that as long as U.S. troops are still there, there will be these kinds of attacks on Shiites and other Iraqi civilians, that the presence of U.S. troops triggers this kind of violence. Do you agree?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No. The point that Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri would make would be that it has nothing to do with the presence of the United States, but it has to do with the possibility of a moderate government emerging in the Iraq. And the real target is not the United States of America. The real target is creating enough chaos in Iraq so that an extremist government can emerge there that would be friendly and conducive to the form of ideology that bin Laden, Zawahiri and Zarqawi believe in.

JIM LEHRER: Looking ahead to summertime when the sovereignty of the country is to be handed over to the Iraqis. What do you foresee the role of the U.S. and coalition forces? One hundred and thirty thousand are there now. What do they do in the new world?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, we’ll do the same thing that we’re continuing to do now, do our best to maintain security and stability. And I think you know that in most of the country, things are relatively stable. There are a few key areas where we’ve got difficulties, and there’s certainly the opportunity for terrorist action throughout the country. But the key shift in focus will be from counter-insurgency operations to more and more cooperation with Iraqi security forces and to building Iraqi security capacity.

But clearly the fact that we’ve gone from zero Iraqi security forces on duty in May to up to 200,000 today is an enormous accomplishment, but it’s not enough. We’ve got to ensure that the quality and the capability of these forces will be good enough to withstand the challenges that the insurgents and the terrorists will present to the new Iraqi government.

Certainly our goal is to leave Iraq, but we can’t leave Iraq with our forces until we know that the Iraqi security forces are capable and efficient enough to defend the sovereignty of the nation. And over time, I think, as Iraqi security capacity builds, you’ll see American and coalition presence there decline.

JIM LEHRER: But they’re not going be ready by June or July, right?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No, in some places right now, I’d say they’re already ready, for example, up in the North and down in the South. But in the areas in the center, there’s a lot of work that has to be done with the security forces to make them well trained, well equipped and reliable.

I think you also understand that one of the key things that’s got to be done in Iraq is to build a mentality of understanding that the military needs to be subordinate to civilian control and respectful of its own people. That is not a tradition that is well known in that part of the world, and it is one that if the new Iraqi government is to be successful, that absolutely must be instilled.

JIM LEHRER: But what about U.S. military being subordinate to Iraqi civilian control? Is that going to happen in June and July?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No, I think when you see the approved language and the transitional administrative law, that it makes it very clear that a multinational force commander that has been provided under the provisions of U.N. Resolution 1511 will continue to conduct operational activity in Iraq, and that although there’ll be a partnership with Iraqi units, I think to say that we would be subordinate to them is not correct.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s going to … that doesn’t concern you, this transition time?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Oh, the transition concerns me because as we move towards an important political event, it’s clear to me that the terrorists and insurgents will move as hard as they can to disrupt this process. And not only do we have to set the conditions for the transition to be effective and legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi people by the first of July, but then we have to continue to set the conditions for elections to be held as early as December possibly if that’s what the politicians decide upon.

So, these political activities will create friction in and of themselves, and in this environment of friction there’ll be additional violence.

Our forces will not be on the sidelines. They’ll conduct operations with Iraqis. We’ll try to include Iraqi officers in our staffs. We will do everything we can to empower Iraqi security forces to stand up on their own and operate where they can alone. But the truth of the matter is they’ll need a lot of backing for some time until the new government, not only becomes legitimate, but becomes sovereign.

JIM LEHRER: And your troops wouldn’t hesitate to step in between two warring factions if that developed, right? Is that what you’re saying?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Our troops will do what they need to do to include stepping in between warring factions if that’s what’s required.

JIM LEHRER: Afghanistan. Are the reports correct that you’ve beefed up the effort to find Osama bin Laden?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, the reports are correct that we’re conducting very robust military operations on the Afghan side of the border in areas where we think al-Qaida is operating and Taliban remnants are. And I know that people always want to believe that this is a manhunt being conducted by the United States military, and we value nothing more than getting Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. But the fact of the matter is that what we must do…

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, Zawahiri is his chief deputy. You’ve mentioned him a couple times before. Go ahead, sorry.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to ensure that we put pressure on the Taliban, pressure on al-Qaida, not only on the Afghan side of the border, but assist any way that the Pakistanis will be comfortable with to help them in their operations as well, which to this point is primarily one of cooperation and coordination, but certainly not involving direct U.S. forces’ activity on the Pakistani side of the border.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about that. No U.S. troops are going into Pakistan?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No U.S. troops in Pakistan, that’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: There was a front page story today in the Wall Street Journal about this beefed-up, this enhanced effort to catch Osama bin Laden, and there’s a line that I want to read you. “The expanded effort is driven in part by pressure from Washington, which has made capture of top al-Qaida leaders an election year priority.” Is that true?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: It’s not true. The current operations that we’re conducting were operations that came from General Austin and General Barnow who are operating in the field there. It also came from General Abizaid and President Musharraf, who had discussions that after a couple of assassination attempts against him and our firm desire to eliminate this menace to our two nations, to try to do what we can to put more pressure against these organizations.

Clearly the Secretary of Defense, my boss, would like nothing better than to get Osama bin Laden and to get … to ensure the complete defeat of al-Qaida, because we know that al-Qaida is planning operations against the United States even as we speak here.

JIM LEHRER: But for the record, nobody has said to you, “Hey, Abizaid, catch this guy before the November election”?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No. Nobody’s said that to me.

JIM LEHRER: No conversation like that at all?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: No.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think he, in fact, will be caught before then?

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I have no way of knowing. I think that we will make it very painful for al-Qaida between now and the end of year.

JIM LEHRER: Are you are confident … you’re confident that … “being uncomfortable,” what does that mean? Explain what “making them uncomfortable” means.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Being on the run, having to change the way that you do business, being unable to plan in a safe and secure environment, always looking over your shoulder, knowing that some day somebody’s going to knock on your door and it’s going to be your last.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. General, thank you very much.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Thank you, sir.